WARSAW, Poland (AP) – Thousands marched in Warsaw on Thursday to mark Poland’s Independence Day, led by right-wing extremist groups demanding strong borders, while its troops blocked hundreds of new attempts by migrants to enter the country illegally from neighboring Belarus in a tense political strife.
Security forces patrolled the capital and other cities for the holiday parades, which were peaceful, in contrast to recent years where there has been some violence from extremists.
“We thank the defenders of Poland’s borders,” said a banner displayed in Warsaw.
The march was overshadowed by events unfolding along Poland’s border with Belarus, with thousands of riot police and troops rejecting migrants, many from the Middle East, trying to enter the EU. Provisional camps have sprung up in forests on the Belarusian side near a crossing near the Polish city of Kuznica, and with falling temperatures and limited access to the border, there are fears of a humanitarian crisis.
EU officials have accused Belarus’ President Alexander Lukashenko of using migrants as peasants in a “hybrid attack” to retaliate for sanctions imposed on his authoritarian regime for a fierce internal crackdown on dissent.
As the EU considered new sanctions against Belarus over the border issue, Lukashenko on Thursday threatened to cut off Russian natural gas supplies to Europe, passing through a pipeline in his country. “I would recommend Poles, Lithuanians and other brainless people to think before they speak,” he said.
Warsaw’s liberal mayor and courts had banned the march, which celebrates Poland’s statehood, but right – wing authorities in the national government disregarded the order and gave the assembly the status of a state ceremony.
The government’s support for the far – right leaders of the march underlined how Poland’s right – wing governing party wants their support. It is also engaged in a political struggle with the EU over Polish changes to the country’s judiciary, which in Brussels is seen as an erosion of democratic norms, along with rhetoric seen as discriminatory against LGBT groups.
In 2017, the parade drew tens of thousands and included white nationalist and anti-Semitic slogans. Yet the following year, the president and prime minister and other leaders marched along the same route as the nationalists.
In an attempt to ban the march, Mayor Rafal Trzaskowski, an opposition figure, argued that Warsaw, which was razed by Nazi Germany during World War II, is “no place to spread slogans that have all the characteristics of fascist slogans.”
When Thursday’s march began, the groups carried Poland’s white-red national flags, but some also waved the green flags of the National Radical Camp, showing a stylized hand with a sword, a right-wing extremist symbol dating back to the 1930s.
Standoff near the border crossing at Kuznica, 250 kilometers (155 miles) east of Warsaw, was on the minds of many at the march.
Deputy Interior Minister Maciej Wasik tweeted that some of the security forces “will go directly from Warsaw to defend our border with Belarus. Remember this when you march!”
March leader Robert Bakiewicz said in a speech that all Poles should stand behind those who protect the eastern border. “Today, there are not only internal strife. Today, there are also external disputes. “Today there is an attack on the Polish border,” he said.
About 15,000 Polish troops have joined the riot police and border guards at the border. The Belarussian Ministry of Defense accused Poland of an “unprecedented” military build-up there, saying migration controls did not justify such a force.
The Department of Defense said Thursday that migrants have made a number of attempts to cross the border since Wednesday, as they have been doing all week.
Near the village of Bialowieza, where a group of a few hundred migrants threw rubbish over the barber wire fence at Polish troops and then tried to destroy it, shots were fired into the air to deter them.
Shots were also fired into the air near the village of Szudzialowo after migrants attacked a soldier, the ministry said. ‘He was hit with a branch on the chest. He fired two warning shots into the air, “said the ministry. The soldier was unharmed and the attackers fled into Belarus.
Since the beginning of the year, there have been 33,000 attempts to cross the border illegally, with 17,000 in October alone, the border guard service said.
The border crisis has been raging since summer, with migrants trying to cross from Belarus to Poland, Lithuania and Latvia. Many would like to go to Germany, but Finland is also a destination.
Poland has taken a hard line, portraying migrants as dangerous criminals and changing its legislation to allow arbitrary rejection of asylum applications, something condemned by the UN refugee agency.
While Poland faces censorship due to its democratic relapse, it has largely found support for the border issue and met with only mild criticism for pushing migrants back.
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said the problem “is not Poland. The problem is Lukashenko and Belarus and its regime, and then Poland has deserved our European solidarity in this situation.”
German Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke by telephone with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Lukashenko’s main ally, for the second time in as many days. The Kremlin said they discussed the border between Poland and Belarus and the importance of a “quick fix” in accordance with international humanitarian standards.
Merkel’s office said she stressed that the crisis was “provoked by the Belarussian regime, which uses defenseless people in a hybrid attack on the EU.”
Moscow and Minsk have close political and military ties, and Russia sent two nuclear-capable strategic bombers on a training mission over Belarus for the second day in a row in a strong backing show.
Mr Lukashenko has stressed the need to strengthen military cooperation in the light of what he has described as aggressive actions by NATO, which include Poland.
The EU is looking at the role some airlines have played in transporting migrants and asylum seekers to the bloc’s doorstep, and there are reports that it is considering sanctions against them.
Russia’s national flag carrier, Aeroflot, vehemently denied any involvement, saying it does not operate any regular or charter flights to Iraq or Syria and had none between Istanbul and Minsk.
A Turkish official with direct knowledge of the issue said Turkish Airlines would stop selling tickets to Iraqi and Syrian nationals for flights to Minsk as part of measures Turkey is considering to help Poland resolve the crisis. The official spoke on condition of anonymity with reference to the sensitivity of the issue and because he was not authorized to announce the company’s policy.
On Wednesday, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said in a phone call with his Polish counterpart, Zbigniew Rau, that he rejected “baseless allegations”, Turkish officials say.
In other developments:
== Iraqi Deputy Migration Minister Karim al-Nuri told the Russian state news agency Sputnik that his country will help return its citizens from Belarus if they wish, and work through its embassy in Russia as it does not have one in Belarus.
– The Secretary General of the Norwegian Refugee Council, Jan Egeland, said that it was “shocking” to see Europe’s inability to properly handle the low number of migrants at the border between Poland and Belarus. “A few thousand people at Europe’s Polish border, many of whom have fled some of the worst crises in the world, are a drop in the ocean compared to the number of people displaced to countries that are much poorer elsewhere,” he said. .
Associated Press writers Geir Moulson in Berlin, Suzan Fraser in Ankara and Vladimir Isachenkov contributed.
Follow AP’s migration coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/migration