Warsaw (AFP) -
Hundreds of desperate migrants were trapped in freezing weather on the border between Poland and Belarus on Tuesday, with Warsaw accusing the regime in Minsk of using them to threaten European security.
Western critics have for months said Belarus's strongman leader Alexander Lukashenko is luring migrants from the Middle East to his country to send them across the border, in retaliation for European sanctions.
Belarus denies the claim and accuses Poland of violating human rights by refusing to allow the migrants in.
The tense situation has raised fears of a confrontation on the border, where armed troops from both countries are deployed.
The crisis came to a head on Monday when hundreds of migrants marched to the border in a bid to cross but were blocked by rows of Polish border guards behind barbed wire.
Poland and Belarus said Tuesday that between 3,000 to 4,000 migrants were now in an improvised camp on the border, near the Polish village of Kuznica.
Journalists have been blocked from the area, but videos released by Belarusian and Polish authorities showed the migrants massed along the razor-wire, huddling by fires and in tents as temperatures hovered around freezing.
- 'Hybrid attack' -
Poland said Belarus was using the migrants as a weapon, insisting it would not open its border.
'Sealing the Polish border is our national interest. But today the stability and security of the entire EU is at stake,' Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki 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.'
President Andrzej Duda accused the Belarusian regime of 'attacking Poland's border, the EU border, in a hitherto unprecedented way.'
But Belarus said Warsaw's treatment of the migrants would be a 'litmus test' of its commitment to international norms and cautioned against any 'provocations'.
'We would like to warn the Polish side in advance against any provocations directed against the Republic of Belarus to justify illegal use of force against disadvantaged, unarmed people, among whom there are many children and women,' the foreign ministry in Minsk said in a statement.
- EU looks at new sanctions -
The Belarusian defence ministry said Poland had deployed 10,000 military personnel to the border without giving prior warning to Belarusian authorities, in what it said was a violation of joint security agreements.
Poland's defence ministry tweeted video footage showing what it said appeared to be a 'large group of Belarusian officers' approaching the vicinity of the migrant camp.
The United States and NATO, of which Poland is a member, on Monday accused Belarus of orchestrating the flow of migrants and demanded it stop.
The European Union called for new sanctions on Belarus, on top of those already applied over Lukashenko's fierce crackdown on the opposition after a disputed election last year.
France's foreign ministry said Tuesday it would consider 'reinforcement' of sanctions, accusing Minsk of 'seeking to destabilise the EU'.
EU diplomats in Brussels told AFP the bloc was already working on moves to expand existing sanctions to include those involved in trafficking migrants, including potentially airlines and travel agencies.
In Moscow, Russian Foreign Sergei Lavrov blamed Western military 'adventures' in the Middle East for prompting migrants to flee the region in the first place.
'The main responsibility for resolving the crisis with migrants, lies of course with those who created the conditions,' Lavrov told reporters.
Moscow is Belarus's main international backer and the Kremlin said Tuesday that President Vladimir Putin had 'exchanged opinions on the situation with refugees' in a phone call with Lukashenko.
- UN 'very alarmed' -
The UN refugee agency said it was 'very alarmed' by the situation on the border and had offered its help.
Some migrants who made it into Poland told AFP last month that they had been trapped in the woods for a week, with Belarus refusing to allow them to return to Minsk and fly home, while Poland would not let them cross to make asylum claims.
The Belarusian border guard service said Tuesday that the migrants in the camp were mostly Kurds, that their physical and mental condition was 'extremely poor' and they lacked water, food and the means to wash themselves.
'The situation is aggravated by the large number of pregnant women and infants among the refugees, who must spend the night on the ground in negative temperatures,' it said.
It accused Polish forces of using tear gas and 'psychological pressure' on the migrants including 'loudspeakers, spotlights and strobe lights the entire night.'
'Shots were also heard,' it said.