Migrants rescued barely conscious 30 miles from Poland's border with Belarus as Lukashenko faces off with Europe
Poland, near the Belarusian border — Belarus' autocratic leader said on Monday that thousands of migrants — many of them seeking asylum from the violence in Iraq, Syria and other nations torn by strife — didn't want to be flown back to their homelands, as he doubled down in a tense standoff with the European Union. President Alexander Lukashenko's Russian-backed regime is accused by the EU and the United States of luring desperate people to the country, easing travel into and through Belarus, with the unwritten promise being an easy land border to cross onto EU soil in Poland or another neighboring country.
But Poland, which had already taken a tougher line on immigration than some of its EU neighbors, has sealed its border. Hundreds of Polish security forces now pace along one side of the barbed wire fence, which groups of migrants have sporadically challenged from the other side, wielding logs and whatever else they can find to attack the fencing.
While those attempts are relatively easy for the Polish forces to put down, some people do make it out of the makeshift camps in the freezing Belarusian forest and get across the long border into Poland. Once there, they must navigate through the woods and hope to be picked up by one of the humanitarian groups operating in the region, which can offer help.
But Polish immigration authorities and police are also on patrol, and they have been accused — along with Belarusian authorities on the other side — of forcing migrants back and forth across the border.
Senior foreign correspondent Charlie D'Agata was in Poland, near the border, when his CBS News team got a call from an aid group on Sunday night to say that two migrants had been found in the forest. As the team neared the location, an ambulance passed at speed, going the other direction.
Where the two men were found, aid workers told CBS News they had been put into the ambulance barely conscious. Both men, who said they were from Syria, were in their early 40s.
They had no food or water with them, and they were found about 30 miles from the Belarusian border. They'd likely been walking for days through the swampy woodland, where temperatures dip below freezing at night.
Lukashenko, who has ruled over Belarus for almost three decades backed by his ally in Moscow, Vladimir Putin, is accused by Europe and America of "instrumentalizing" immigration in his standoff with the West. The feud began when the EU sanctioned Lukashenko's regime over his harsh crackdown on opposition members, dissidents and journalists in the wake of an election that he claims to have won in a landslide, but many say was far from democratic.
On Monday, Belarus' state-run Belta news agency quoted Lukashenko as saying his country was now trying to send the migrants back home, but that they didn't want to go. He said if Poland refused to open a "humanitarian corridor" to let them cross the border, Belarus would fly them to Germany.
"Active work is underway in this area, to convince people — please, return home. But nobody wants to go back," Lukashenko said, according to Belta. "We will send them to Munich by our own planes, if necessary."
The president, who's often referred to as Europe's last dictator, said he did not want to see the standoff at the Polish border spiral into a "conflict," which he said would be "completely detrimental for" Belarus.
Lukashenko has also threatened to cut off Western Europe's gas supply as the coldest months of winter approach, which he could do by locking down pipelines that carry Russian natural gas through his country to the west. Russia promised on Monday that it would not breach its supply contracts with Europe. A Kremlin spokesman in Moscow warned that any move by Lukashenko to interrupt the supply, "would not contribute to the development of relations between Russia and Belarus."
But Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, also said it was "absolutely wrong to place all the blame for the situation at the border on President Lukashenko and on the Belarusian side."
He suggested that Western European countries where governments have been more welcoming of migrants were to blame, for giving people hope that they would be taken in.
CBS News' Anna Noryskiewicz, Steve Berriman and Tucker Reals contributed to this report.
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