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Tension mounts as soldiers and migrants mass at Belarus-Poland border, EU accuses Belarus of "hybrid attack"

Migrants caught in "hybrid warfare" along Poland-Belarus border
Migrants caught in deadly "hybrid warfare" along Poland-Belarus border 04:09

Poland has stepped up efforts to seal its border with Belarus as Polish and European officials accuse the country of waging a "hybrid attack," encouraging migrants to use the frontier as a gateway into the European Union. Polish authorities say as many as 4,000 migrants have now massed along Belarus' border with Poland hoping to cross — the latest pawns in what the EU considers ' efforts by Belarus to weaponize immigration in its standoff with the bloc.

There were unconfirmed reports of gunfire on Tuesday as tension soared in the months-long crisis between Russia-aligned Belarus, and EU and NATO member Poland. Military forces have entrenched on both sides of the border, and migrants desperate to reach EU soil are caught in the middle, in dire conditions.

CBS News visited the border region a month ago and met migrants who said they had been pushed back and forth across the border by opposing authorities in Belarus and Poland, in violation of international law.

Hundreds of migrants try to cross from the Belarus side of the border with Poland near Kuznica Bialostocka
Hundreds of migrants try to cross from the Belarus side of the border with Poland, near Kuznica Bialostocka, Poland, in a video grab released by the Polish Defence Ministry on November 8, 2021. Polish government handout via REUTERS

Afshan Khan, the United Nations refugee agency's Special Coordinator for the Refugee and Migrant Response in Europe, said on Tuesday that he was "deeply concerned about the dire situation facing migrant and asylum-seeking children in Europe and at its borders."

"Reports of children living in appalling conditions, being pushed back or detained at the eastern borders are shocking and a direct violation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child," Khan said. "Children and their families have the right to seek asylum and have their protection needs evaluated on an individual basis."

But Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawieck framed it as a security issue not only for his country, but for the EU.

"Sealing the Polish border is our national interest. But today the stability and security of the entire EU is at stake," he said on Twitter. "This hybrid attack of Lukashenko's regime is aimed at all of us. We will not be intimidated and will defend peace in Europe with our partners from NATO and EU," he said, referring to Belarus' autocratic leader Alexander Lukashenko.

Polish leaders accuse Belarus of "hybrid warfare" as migrants rush to border 11:42

Polish authorities said on Tuesday that a "large group" of security forces from the authoritarian country next door was seen moving toward a migrant camp in the Belarusian border area. As Poland's Defense Minister said in a tweet that his own country had massed "12,000 soldiers in full deployment at the border, on high alert," Lukashenko said he wasn't looking for an armed conflict, but warned that his country "will not kneel" to Europe in the standoff.

He warned that any conflict would likely draw in his ally, Russia. 

"We are not seeking a fight," he said, according to state-run news agency Belta. "I am not a madman. I understand perfectly well where it can lead... But we will not kneel."

Polish media outlets reported on Monday that thousands of people, many from Afghanistan and Iraq, had walked from the Belarusian side toward the Polish border. Video showed some groups trying to break through razor wire fencing erected by Polish authorities as the crisis has played out over recent months.

The migrants and refugees have been camped out in sub-zero temperatures, many sleeping in tents in the swampy forest along the border. The Belarusian border guard has said that even meet basic hygienic needs can't be met, as Minsk ups the pressure on Poland to take in the influx of migrants.

Migrants at the Belarusian-Polish border in the Grodno region, November 9, 2021. LEONID SHCHEGLOV/BELTA/AFP/Getty

Belarusian media outlets, all of which are controlled to some degree by the country's government, reported gunfire on the Polish side on both Monday and Tuesday, citing the country's border guards. Polish officials have said they have no information of any shooting on their side.

The situation along the border is difficult to verify, as Poland has imposed a 1.8-mile exclusion zone for journalists, and Belarus has also not allowed independent reporting anywhere near the frontier.

Belarusian state media have published photos and video of people gathered around campfires and children lying in sleeping bags on the ground in the forest area.

On Monday, large groups of migrants tried unsuccessfully to break through the sealed border from the Belarusian side near Kuznica, close to a large migrant camp in the forest, according to Polish authorities.

Migrants gather on the Belarusian-Polish border
Migrants gather in a camp near the Belarusian-Polish border, as they hope to cross it in the Grodno region of Belarus, November 9, 2021. Leonid Scheglov/BelTA/Handout via REUTERS

"We would like to warn the Polish side in advance against using any provocations directed against the Republic of Belarus to justify possible illegal military actions against disadvantaged unarmed people," Belarus' Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

Poland and the EU have accused Lukashenko's Russian-backed regime of deliberately flying people in from Afghanistan, Iraq and other conflict zones and then facilitating their journey to the Polish border.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen called on Tuesday for further sanctions against Belarus over the situation along the border. It was EU sanctions against Lukashenko's regime, for its actions against journalists and opposition politicians, that sparked the crisis early this year.

Emotional new video shows journalist detained in Belarus confessing to organizing riots 02:10

Belarus must end its "cynical weaponizing of migrants", Von der Leyen said, calling on "member states to approve a further raft of sanctions against the Belarusian authorities responsible for this hybrid attack."

"This is part of the inhuman and really gangster style approach of the Lukashenko regime," European Commission spokesman Peter Stano told journalists on Tuesday.

The EU has already convinced Iraq to stop flights from Baghdad to Minsk, and the bloc is actively trying to extend its "outreach" to a total of 13 nations where it believes Belarus may be trying to lure people into traveling to Minsk with the intention of heading for the Polish border.    

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