WARSAW, Poland (AP) – Thousands marched in Warsaw on Thursday for Polish Independence Day, led by far-right groups calling for strong borders, while their troops blocked hundreds of new attempts by migrants to illegally enter the country from neighboring Belarus at a strained distance.
Security forces patrolled the capital for the parade, which was peaceful, unlike what some extremists have made violent in recent years.
“Today it’s not just internal disputes. Today there are also external disputes. Today there is an attack on the Polish border, ”said March leader Robert Bakiewicz in a speech, adding that all Poles should support those who protect the eastern border.
The march was overshadowed by events along Poland’s border with Belarus, where thousands of riot police, troops and border guards are repulsing migrants, many from the Middle East trying to enter the European Union. Temporary camps have been set up in forests on the Belarusian side near an intersection in the Polish city of Kuznica, and a humanitarian crisis is feared if temperatures drop and access to the border is restricted.
EU officials have accused Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko of using the migrants as pawns in a “hybrid attack” in retaliation for the sanctions imposed on his authoritarian regime, for cracking down on dissenting opinions internally.
As the EU is considering further sanctions against Belarus, Lukashenko threatened to cut off Russian gas supplies to Europe through a pipeline in his country. “I would recommend Poles, Lithuanians and other mindless people to think before they speak,” he said.
The UN Security Council discussed the crisis privately but took no action, although six of its Western members condemned the use of “people whose lives and well-being were endangered by Belarus for political purposes” and called on the international community to “hold Belarus accountable” and “to stop these inhuman acts”.
Russia’s Deputy UN Ambassador Dmitri Poljanski described the decision of the EU members to raise the issue of Belarus-Poland in the most powerful UN body “a total shame”. He said Belarus is not responsible for making people who have legally come to Belarus want to enter EU countries.
Courts and Warsaw’s liberal mayor Rafal Trzaskowski had banned the independence march, which celebrated Poland’s statehood, but right-wing authorities in the national government overruled the order and gave the assembly the status of a state ceremony.
The government’s support for the far-right leaders of the march underscored how much Poland’s right-wing ruling party wants their support. She is also waging a political battle with the EU over changes in the Polish judiciary that are seen in Brussels as undermining democratic norms, along with rhetoric that is seen as discriminatory against LGBT groups.
In 2017, the parade drew tens of thousands and contained white nationalist and anti-Semitic slogans. The next year the president, prime minister, and other leaders marched the same route as the nationalists.
In an attempt to ban the march, Trzaskowski argued that Warsaw, which was razed to the ground by Nazi Germany in World War II, was no place for “fascist slogans”.
Groups marched with the white and red flags of Poland on Thursday, but some also waved the green flags of the National Radical Camp with a stylized hand holding a sword, a right-wing symbol from the 1930s.
The stalemate near the border crossing at Kuznica, 250 kilometers east of Warsaw, was remembered by many at the demonstration, and a banner in Warsaw read: “We thank the defenders of the Polish borders”.
Deputy Interior Minister Maciej Wasik tweeted that some security forces “will go straight out of Warsaw to defend our border with Belarus. Remember when you march! “
Around 15,000 Polish soldiers have joined the riot police and guards at the border. The Belarusian Ministry of Defense accused Poland of “unprecedented” military build-up, saying that migration control did not justify such a force.
The Polish Ministry of Defense said the migrants had made several attempts to cross the border since Wednesday, as they had for the whole week.
The ministry said shots were fired into the air near the village of Bialowieza, where several hundred migrants threw debris over the barbed wire fence at Polish troops and then tried to destroy it. Near the village of Szudzialowo, migrants grabbed a soldier in the chest with a branch, but he fired two warning shots in the air and was unharmed, the ministry said. The attackers fled deeper into Belarus.
Since the beginning of the year there have been 33,000 attempts to illegally cross the border, 17,000 of them in October alone, the border guard said.
At least eight migrants have died, officials said, and conditions have worsened with freezing night temperatures. A video from Russian state media on Thursday showed hundreds of migrants pushing and struggling to get help delivered to them along with a woman being treated for alleged hypothermia.
Mulusew Mamo, a UNHCR representative in Belarus who visited the migrants, called the situation there “catastrophic”.
“And one day it will be more catastrophic, I think,” said Mamo, adding that the aid will be distributed through the Red Cross and will last for several days.
The crisis has been brewing since the summer, migrants are trying to get from Belarus to Poland, Lithuania and Latvia. Many want to go to Germany, but Finland is also a destination.
Warsaw has taken a tough line, portraying migrants as dangerous criminals and changing its law allow arbitrary rejection of asylum applications, which the UN refugee agency condemns.
But Poland has largely received support from Europe on the border issue and faces only mild criticism because it has pushed back the migrants.
The problem is “not Poland,” said Federal Foreign Minister Heiko Maas. “The problem is Lukashenko and Belarus and his regime, and that’s why Poland has earned our European solidarity in this situation.”
However, Jan Egeland, chairman of the Norwegian Refugee Council, said it was “shocking” that Europe is unable to properly deal with such a relatively small number of migrants on the Polish-Belarusian border.
“A few thousand people on Europe’s Polish border, many of whom have fled some of the world’s worst crises, is a drop in the ocean compared to the number of people displaced to countries that are much poorer elsewhere “, he said.
Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke on the phone for the second time within a few days with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Lukashenko’s most important ally. The Kremlin said they had talked about the Polish-Belarusian border and the importance of a “quick fix” in accordance with international humanitarian norms.
Merkel’s office said she stressed the crisis was “conjured up by the Belarusian regime using defenseless people in a hybrid attack against the European Union”.
Moscow and Minsk have close political and military ties, and Russia has sent two nuclear-capable strategic bombers on a training mission over Belarus for a second day in a row on a strong show of support.
Lukashenko has stressed the need to step up military cooperation in the face of what he described as aggressive action by NATO, which includes Poland.
The EU is investigating the role some airlines have played in getting migrants and asylum seekers to the bloc’s doorstep and there are reports that it is considering sanctions against them.
Russia’s national airline Aeroflot strongly denied any involvement, saying it did not operate regular or charter flights to Iraq or Syria and did not have any between Istanbul and Minsk.
A Turkish official with direct knowledge of the problem said Turkish Airlines would stop selling tickets to Iraqi and Syrian nationals for flights to Minsk as part of measures taken by Turkey to resolve the crisis. The officer spoke on condition of anonymity, pointing to the sensitivity of the issue and because he was not empowered to disclose company policy.
Iraqi Deputy Migration Minister Karim al-Nuri told Russian state news agency Sputnik that his country will help its citizens who want to return from Belarus by working through its embassy in Russia because it doesn’t have any in Belarus.
Associated press writers Geir Moulson in Berlin, Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Vladimir Isachenkov and Daria Litvinova in Moscow and Edith M. Lederer from the United Nations contributed to this.
Follow AP’s migration coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/migration