Poland and Latvia concerned about Russia’s war games on the tense border between the EU and Belarus

BRUSSELS, Sept 2 (Reuters) – Poland and Latvia on Thursday expressed concern over impending joint Russian military maneuvers on Belarus’ western border, where the European Union accuses Minsk of pushing migrants to put pressure on the block.

Poland, Latvia and Lithuania sealed off their eastern borders after several thousand people – including from Iraq, Afghanistan, Congo and Cameroon – entered, crossing on foot from Belarus through dense woods.

The EU has accused Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko of blackmail and risking the lives of migrants for political revenge on the bloc after imposing sanctions on Minsk.

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It came after Belarus forced a Western plane to land on its soil to arrest a Lukashenko critic on board, part of a sweeping crackdown on dissidents protesting a disputed 2020 presidential election.

“What is happening in Belarus is a hybrid attack on our borders where basically the state is kidnapping people, giving them visas and then pushing them into the border area,” Latvian Defense Minister Artis said. Pabriks, in the European Parliament.

“It’s a dangerous thing especially because of the Zapad 2021 military exercises. They collide in the same place at the borders of the European Union.”

Speaking at the same audience, Poland’s ambassador to the EU said Lukashenko was testing the bloc and warned that the situation could become more tense with Zapad – or “West” – war games which should start on September 10.

“Some of the elements of the exercises will take place close to EU borders,” said Andrzej Sados. “This creates additional risks of incidents.”

The EU – increasingly restrictive on immigration since Mediterranean arrivals overwhelmed it in 2015 – is backing its eastern members to prevent the arrival of irregular migrants, though rights groups ask for help for the people.

“We not only need EU coordination, but also support, including the possibility of further sanctions, because our borders are under pressure,” Pabriks said.

A Lithuanian deputy foreign minister has also demanded new sanctions against Belarus, including the restriction of access to international financial markets for the national company Belavia, which is already blocked from European skies.

He said the new sanctions should target “Belarusian state entities and people involved in the smuggling of migrants across the EU’s eastern border and the violation of human rights”.

Belarus said last month that the Zapad drills would involve thousands of military personnel, as well as tanks, artillery and aircraft. The annual exercises often irritate the West but this year the situation is more tense on the migration issue.

Lukashenko has said he will no longer detain migrants after the EU imposed sanctions during the 2020 presidential election and Minsk’s subsequent crackdown on protesters.

Some 166 people – including government ministers, military and security officials, and judges accused of playing an active role in the crackdown – and 15 entities are now on the EU blacklist , which means that all the assets they hold in the bloc are seized and they cannot travel to any of the 27 member states.

The broader economic sanctions ban sales of equipment to Belarus that could be used to monitor the internet or phone calls, and restrict trade in petroleum products as well as potash, Minsk’s main export.

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Reporting by Gabriela Baczynska; Editing by David Gregorio

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