Putin says Russia has 'nothing to do' with Belarus-Poland border crisis

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Russian President Vladimir Putin on Saturday denied claims Moscow is helping to orchestrate a crisis that has left hundreds of migrants from the Middle East trapped on the Belarus-Poland border.

Blaming Western policies in the Middle East for the crisis, Putin hit back at claims from Poland and others that Russia is working with Belarus to pressure the European Union frontier.

"I want everyone to know. We have nothing to do with it," he told state television.

Putin said European leaders needed to talk to Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko to resolve the crisis and that "as I understand it" German Chancellor Angela Merkel was ready to do so.

"We should not forget where these crises associated with migrants came from... Western countries themselves, including European countries," he said.

The migrants, mainly Kurds, have been stuck for days on the border in near-freezing temperatures, setting up a tent camp and burning wood to keep warm.

Belarus says there are about 2,000 people in the camp, including pregnant women and children. Poland says there are between 3,000 and 4,000 migrants on the border, with more arriving every day.

- Tents, heaters brought to camp -

As temperatures fall, Poland refuses to allow them to cross and accuses Belarus of preventing them from leaving the area.

Belarusian authorities said Saturday they were delivering aid including tents and heaters -- a move that could make the camp a semi-permanent presence on the borders of the EU.

State news agency Belta reported that government bodies were erecting tents and that a generator had been delivered.

Although migrants have been trying to cross the border for months, hundreds made a concerted effort on Monday and were pushed back by Polish border guards.

Sporadic attempts to cross have continued, and Polish police said Saturday that the body of a young Syrian man had been found in a forest close to the border.

Police said the cause of death could not be immediately determined and that a group of around 100 migrants had attempted to cross the border during the night in the area.

The death brings to 11 the number of migrants found dead on both sides since the crisis began in the summer, according to aid groups.

A Polish soldier deployed in the border area, meanwhile, died in what the polish army described in a statement as an "unfortunate accident".

European leaders have accused Lukashenko, who has ruled ex-Soviet Belarus for nearly 30 years, of luring the migrants to send across the border in revenge for sanctions imposed over a bloody crackdown on his opponents.

The EU is expected next week to widen the penalties to include new sanctions for "human trafficking".

- EU set for new sanctions -

European Commission vice president Margaritis Schinas told French newspaper Le Figaro the sanctions would be "approved and applied".

He said they would also target Belarusian state airline Belavia, which has been accused of ferrying groups of migrants from Turkey and elsewhere to Minsk.

Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya urged European leaders to reject talks with Lukashenko.

"There can't be any dialogue with the dictator trying to blackmail democratic countries," Tikhanovskaya, who fled Belarus after claiming victory in a disputed presidential election last year, said on Twitter.

The EU said Friday it was having some success in efforts to stem the flow of migrants, after Ankara banned Iraqis, Syrians and Yemenis from flying to Belarus from Turkey.

"Travellers are going to Belarus and from there to Lithuania, Poland and other EU countries. Blaming Turkey for that, or Turkish Airlines, is simply so misguided, misplaced," President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's top foreign policy adviser Ibrahim Kalin told AFP.

Private Syrian carrier Cham Wings Airlines also said Saturday it would halt flights to Minsk, citing the situation on the Polish border and adding that "we cannot differentiate between travellers and migrants".

Tensions remain high at the border, where thousands of troops have been deployed on both sides.

Although Belarus has held joint drills with Russian paratroopers near the border and Russian bombers have patrolled over the country this week, Moscow's support for Minsk is often cautious.

Putin said Saturday that Lukashenko was acting entirely on his own when he threatened this week to cut off Russian gas transit through Belarus to Europe.

"Honestly speaking, it was the first I heard about it," Putin said.

"He never told me, did not even hint. Well, he can probably. But it would not be good and of course I will talk to him about this, if he didn't simply say it out of irritation."

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