Russia sends bombers to patrol the skies over Belarus as migrant crisis escalates

Russia dispatched nuclear-capable bombers to patrol Belarusian airspace yesterday in a rare show of force as Moscow demanded the EU take in thousands of migrants camped on its border.

he two supersonic warplanes were scrambled over Belarus to test the country’s missile defences, the Russian defence ministry said, as the migrant crisis on the bloc’s frontier worsened.

The deployment marked an escalation in the stand-off between the EU, Belarus and Russia, with Polish authorities battling to contain 4,000 migrants camped on its border with Belarus.

Asylum-seekers from Iraq and other countries began to arrive on the EU’s doorstep in the summer, a few weeks after Alexander Lukashenko, the Belarusian dictator, threatened to “flood” Europe with migrants in retaliation for Western sanctions imposed after brutal crackdowns on protesters.

Poland has accused Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, of orchestrating the crisis from behind the scenes and using Belarus as a proxy to “rebuild the Russian empire”.

After the flyover by the pair of Tu-22M3 nuclear jets, the Russian military said such manoeuvres would become more frequent in response to the “ongoing situation both in the air and on the ground”.

The Polish defence ministry posted a video of Belarusian security forces firing into the air to intimidate migrants standing by the border fence yesterday. As the shot rings out, the crowd of women and children scream.

Polish authorities also said that three people had been arrested, including a Russian suspected of human trafficking.

An Iraqi told an independent Belarusian news outlet that the asylum-seekers were trapped at the border, with no way to progress to Poland or go back to Belarus.

“We can’t stay in Belarus because the Belarusian border guards are using force to get us to go to Poland,” the man, identified as Amir, told Zerkalo.

He said that he had been at the camp for two days and had no idea how long he would have to stay.

Several dozen young men from Iraq shared live video of themselves on Facebook from outside a shopping centre in Minsk, with backpacks and sleeping bags for their journey to the Polish border.

Angela Merkel, the departing German chancellor, called on Mr Putin to intervene with Belarus. Her office said she had told him that the exploitation of migrants “against the European Union by the Belarusian regime is inhumane and completely unacceptable”, and urged him to “exert his influence” on Mr Lukashenko.

Russia blamed the EU, accusing Brussels of trying to “strangle” Minsk, the Belarus capital, by closing off the border.

Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, told a news conference that he hoped Europeans would “not allow themselves to be drawn into a spiral that is fairly dangerous”.

“A humanitarian catastrophe is looming against the background of European reluctance to demonstrate commitment to their values,” Dmitry Peskov, a Kremlin spokesman, said in a briefing.

Ursula Von de Leyen, the European Commission president, yesterday announced the bloc would expand its sanctions against Belarus, targeting both individuals and companies. “It is important that Lukashenko understands that (such) behaviour comes with a price,” she said.

United Nations human rights chief Michelle Bachelet called on states to resolve the “intolerable” crisis, adding that under international law people should not be prevented from seeking asylum.

“I urge the states involved to take immediate steps to de-escalate and resolve this intolerable situation in line with their obligations under international human rights law and refugee law,” Ms Bachelet said in a statement.

“These hundreds of men, women and children must not be forced to spend another night in freezing weather without adequate shelter, food, water and medical care

.”

Telegraph Media Group Limited [2021]

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