Belarus’ authoritarian leader, Alexander Lukashenko, has threatened to cut off Europe’s gas supplies if sanctions are imposed over an escalating migrant crisis at the country’s western border.
Mr. Lukashenko’s threat came as a response to accusations from EU officials that his government is provoking the crisis to undermine its security, an allegation it denies.
Thousands of people, mostly from Iraq, Syria and Yemen, are at the border with Poland, enduring freezing conditions in the hope of crossing into the EU.
But on Thursday Mr. Lukashenko warned: “If they impose additional sanctions on us… we must respond”.
“We are heating Europe, and they are threatening us,” he said, referring to a Russian gas pipeline that runs through Belarus and into the EU.
“And what if we halt natural gas supplies? Therefore, I would recommend the leadership of Poland, Lithuanians and other empty-headed people to think before speaking.”
His comments raised fresh fears amid worsening natural gas shortages and rising prices in Europe.
The EU’s economy commissioner Paolo Gentiloni said the 27-member bloc “should not be intimidated”. Exiled Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya accused the president of “bluffing” over his gas ultimatum.
But Katja Yafimava, from the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies, said Mr. Lukashenko’s threat should be taken seriously.
“If the EU pushes Belarus too hard, it may act on this threat,” Dr. Yafimava said, adding that this could push up gas prices across Europe, including in the UK.
More EU sanctions could be introduced as early as Monday. Possible measures include stopping international airlines carrying migrants from landing at the airport in the Belarusian capital Minsk.
Turkey’s national carrier Turkish Airlines has said it will be restricting the sale of tickets on some routes for citizens of Iraq, Syria and Yemen.
Iraq has said it is organising repatriation flights for Iraqi nationals from Belarus.
The EU is also reportedly considering sanctions against the Russian state airline Aeroflot for transporting migrants to Belarus, an allegation Aeroflot denies.
Belarus’ Belavia national carrier was in May banned from EU skies after a Ryanair flight was forced to divert to Minsk and a dissident journalist arrested.
The EU has accused Belarus of mounting a “hybrid attack” on its territory by encouraging thousands of people to cross into Poland.
It claims the country’s leadership had enticed them with the false promise of easy entry to the EU as part of an “inhuman, gangster-style approach”.
Mr. Lukashenko, who was declared the winner after last year’s discredited election, has repeatedly denied that Belarus is sending migrants over the border in revenge for existing EU sanctions.
The migrants are mainly young men – but there are also women and children. They are camping in tents just inside Belarus, trapped between Polish guards on one side and Belarusian guards on the other.
At least seven people have died on the Polish side of the border, many from hypothermia in recent months. (Source: BBC)