Sokolka (Poland) (AFP) -
Polish forces fired tear gas at stone-throwing migrants trying to cross the border from Belarus on Tuesday, the defence ministry said, as Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko claimed he wanted to avoid a 'confrontation'.
Polish border guards estimate up to 4,000 migrants are now camped out along the border between Poland and Belarus in increasingly dire conditions and freezing temperatures.
Western powers accuse Belarus of orchestrating the crisis, possibly with the backing of Russia, by luring migrants to the border to sow division in the EU -- though Minsk and Moscow deny the claims.
At least 11 migrants have died on both sides since the influx started in the summer. One of them, a 19-year-old Syrian from the war-torn city of Homs, was laid to rest on Monday.
A standoff near the Bruzgi-Kuznica border crossing on the EU's eastern frontier began last week when hundreds of migrants gathered there.
'Migrants attacked our soldiers and officers with rocks and are trying to destroy the fence and cross into Poland,' the defence ministry said on Tuesday, tweeting a video showing apparent clashes at the border.
'Our forces used tear gas to quell the migrants' aggression.'
- Growing sanctions list -
Russia and Belarus have denied organising the crisis, Lukashenko told a government meeting on Tuesday: 'We cannot let this so-called problem lead to heated confrontation.'
'The main thing now is to protect our country and our people, and not to allow clashes,' he added, according to state news agency Belta.
Lukashenko discussed the crisis with Germany's Angela Merkel on Monday, his first phone call with a Western leader since he suppressed mass protests against his rule last year.
The Belarus leader -- in power since 1994 and accused by the West of rigging an election last year -- said he and Merkel agreed the standoff should be defused.
'We were of the united opinion that nobody needs escalation -- not the EU, or Belarus,' he said.
But he said he had 'differing' views with Merkel on how the migrants got to Belarus, with the West saying Minsk had brought them there as revenge for sanctions.
EU foreign ministers have agreed that existing sanctions targeting Lukashenko's regime will be expanded to include individuals or companies found to have encouraged border crossings.
'We are not gathering all the refugees in the world and bringing them to Belarus, as Poland told the EU,' Lukashenko said, adding that Minsk had deported around 5,000 migrants.
The US has also vowed to expand its sanctions on Belarus.
- 'United and firm' -
Merkel's office said the pair discussed bringing humanitarian aid to the migrants, whose number includes many young children.
French President Emmanuel Macron also on Monday discussed the crisis with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, who has urged the EU to speak directly to Minsk.
France's Europe minister Clement Beaune said there were signs that the crisis was de-escalating but urged caution.
'Europe has been quick, united and firm on this crisis,' he told the France 2 television channel. 'It is doing the right thing.'
Iraq has said it will start voluntary repatriations of its citizens from Belarus this week, but many migrants -- including those AFP spoke to -- have vowed not to go back.
Following EU pressure to stop the arrivals, Turkish Airlines has banned Iraqis, Syrians and Yemenis from flying to Belarus via Turkey and private Syrian carrier Cham Wings Airlines has said it will halt flights to Minsk.