Belarus has introduced the death penalty for attempts to carry out acts of terrorism, Russian news agencies reported Wednesday, charges that several opposition activists face in the ex-Soviet country.
Belarus — a close ally of Russia — is the only country in Europe that continues to carry out executions despite calls for a moratorium.
“Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko signed a law on the possibility of the death penalty for an attempted terrorist act,” the RIA Novosti news agency reported, citing an online government portal for legal information.
It said the law would come into force 10 days after its publication.
A Belarusian court in the city of Grodno on Wednesday started a closed-door hearing in the case against 12 activists accused of “preparing acts of terrorism”, according to Belarusian rights group Vyasna.
Among them is veteran activist Nikolai Avtukhovich, who has already served more than seven years in jail. The 59-year-old faces a litany of other charges, including treason.
The activists are accused of setting the home and car of a policeman on fire in October 2020 and burning the car of another policeman in November 2020, in the wake of historic protests that erupted in Belarus over the disputed re-election of strongman Lukashenko.
Activists believe that Svetlana Tikhanovskaya — who now leads the Belarusian opposition from exile in Lithuania — was the true winner in the August 2020 polls.
Last March, Belarusian prosecutors charged Tikhanovskaya with “preparing acts of terrorism as part of an organised group”, according to Belarusian state news agency Belta.
The EU has agreed to add more Russian oligarchs and officials to its sanctions blacklist, tighten rules on cryptocurrency transfers and target the maritime sector over Moscow’s war in Ukraine, diplomats said Wednesday.
The 27-nation bloc also gave the go-ahead to cut three Belarusian banks from the global SWIFT messaging system over Minsk’s support for the Kremlin’s attack, the French mission, which holds the EU’s rotating presidency, tweeted.
The EU is looking to close off loopholes in the unprecedented barrage of sanctions it unleashed along with Western allies after Russian President Vladimir Putin launched the invasion.
The move targeting cryptocurrencies is meant to prevent blacklisted individuals and companies using the encrypted digital systems to circumvent the EU’s sanctions.
The bloc is also adding to its list of banned technologies that can be exported to Russia as it seeks to erode the country’s industrial base.
The full details of the latest sanctions are set to be unveiled shortly when they are formally published in the EU’s official journal.
The EU is trying to ratchet up pressure on the Kremlin and officials say they are ready to impose further sanctions on Moscow if it does not end the war.
But the bloc has so far rejected targeting Russia’s key oil and gas exports given the reliance of member states on energy from its giant eastern neighbour.
Moscow’s defence ministry had earlier Monday announced new plans for humanitarian corridors, with the defence ministry confirming a “regime of silence” had started at 0700 GMT.
But several routes led into Russia or its ally Belarus, raising questions over the safety of those who might use them.
“This is not an acceptable option,” Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said. The civilians “aren’t going to go to Belarus and then take a plane to Russia”.
Moscow had said the decision was taken after a “personal request” by French President Emmanuel Macron, who spoke with Russia’s Vladimir Putin on Sunday.
Macron’s office however denied there had been such a request.
– ‘They are monsters’ –
AFP journalists saw thousands of civilians early Monday fleeing the fighting via an unofficial humanitarian corridor in Irpin, a strategic suburb west of Kyiv.
“I am so happy to have managed to get out,” said Olga, a 48-year-old woman leaving with her two dogs.
Children and the elderly were carried on carpets used as stretchers on the route, which leads over a makeshift bridge and then a single path secured by the army and volunteers.
Desperate people abandoned pushchairs and heavy suitcases to make sure they could get on the buses out of the war zone.
A day earlier a family of two adults and two children were killed by a shell as they tried to leave the war-torn area in scenes that horrified the world.
“They are monsters. Irpin is at war, Irpin has not surrendered,” mayor Oleksandr Markushyn said on Telegram, adding that he had seen the family killed with his own eyes.
Two recent attempts to allow some 200,000 civilians to leave the key Azov Sea port of Mariupol, where the International Committee of the Red Cross warned of “devastating scenes of human suffering”, have also ended in disaster.
One family which did manage to leave the city described spending a week without heat or electricity and running out of food and water.
“On the road, we saw there were bodies everywhere, Russians and Ukrainians… we saw that people had been buried in their basements.”
There was no let-up in the violence overnight into Monday, with air sirens sounding in cities across the country, and intense aerial bombardment in Ukraine’s second city Kharkiv, which has endured almost non-stop fire in recent days.
“The enemy continues the offensive operation against Ukraine, focusing on the encirclement of Kyiv, Kharkiv, Chernihiv, Sumy and Mykolayiv,” the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine said in a statement.
The mayor of Gostomel, the town north of Kiev that is home to a crucial military airfield, was shot dead by Russian forces along with two other people while “distributing bread to the hungry and medicine to the sick,” local officials said.
The bodies of nine people — five civilians and four soldiers — were found in the rubble of Vinnytsia airport in central Ukraine after it was destroyed in a Russian missile attack on Sunday, rescue services said.
However a key town in the Kharkiv region, Chuguiv, has been retaken in a counterattack by Ukrainian forces, Anton Gerashchenko, an aide to the interior minister, wrote on Telegram.
– 10,000 arrested in Russia –
Ukraine’s President Volodymr Zelensky renewed calls for the West to boycott Russian exports, particularly oil, and to impose a no-fly zone to stop the carnage.
“How many more deaths and losses must it take to secure the skies over Ukraine?” he said in a video message.
Twelve days of fighting have killed hundreds of civilians and wounded thousands. An unending stream of people — mostly women and children — has poured into neighbouring countries in what the UN calls Europe’s fastest growing refugee crisis since World War II.
Western allies have imposed unprecedented sanctions against businesses, banks and billionaires in a bid to choke the Russian economy and pressure Moscow to halt its assault.
But Russian President Vladimir Putin has equated global sanctions with a declaration of war and warned that Kyiv is “putting in question the future of Ukrainian statehood” by continuing to resist.
Moscow has been forced to restrict sales of essential goods to limit black-market speculation, while on Sunday payment giant American Express halted operations there, a day after Visa and MasterCard announced similar steps.
Streaming giant Netflix suspended its service in Russia while social media titan TikTok halted the posting of new videos from Russia.
Despite harsh punishments for those voicing dissent, protests in Russia against the Ukraine invasion have continued, with more than 10,000 people arrested since it began.
– Putin vows ‘neutralisation’ –
Putin has pledged the “neutralisation” of Ukraine “either through negotiation or through war”, and expectations remain low for a third round of Russian-Ukrainian talks set for Monday.
China said on Monday it was open to helping mediate peace, but stressed that the friendship between close allies Beijing and Moscow remained “rock solid”.
The International Court of Justice meanwhile began hearing Ukraine’s appeal for it to order Russia to halt the fighting, but Moscow declined to attend the sitting of the UN’s top court in The Hague.
NATO allies have so far rebuffed Ukraine’s calls for a no-fly zone, with one senior US senator, Marco Rubio, saying Sunday that it could lead to “World War III” against nuclear-armed Russia.
Putin has threatened “colossal and catastrophic consequences not only for Europe but also the whole world” if a no-fly zone is imposed.
Kyiv also has urged the West to boost its military assistance, with Zelensky pleading for Russian-made planes that his pilots are trained to fly.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Washington was “working actively” on a deal with Poland to supply it with American jets.
Moscow has also warned Ukraine’s neighbours against hosting Kyiv’s military aircraft, saying they could end up involved in armed conflict.
Weapons, ammunition and funds have poured into Ukraine from Western allies as they seek to bolster Kyiv.
Swedish furniture giant Ikea said Thursday it would suspend its activities in Russia and Belarus, affecting nearly 15,000 employees, 17 stores and three production sites, in response to the war in Ukraine.
The move was the latest in a slew of responses by companies to Moscow’s invasion of its neighbour, while the United States, the European Union and Britain have all unleashed severe economic sanctions, including targeting of Russian banks and its transport sector.
“The war has had a huge human impact already. It is also resulting in serious disruptions to supply chain and trading conditions. For all of these reasons, Ikea has decided to temporarily pause operations in Russia,” the company said in a statement to AFP.
The suspension mainly concerns Russia, where the Swedish group has been present since 2000 and is one of the largest Western employers.
Operations in Belarus would also be halted, though the country hosts only a few suppliers and has no shops, according to Ikea.
“The devastating war in Ukraine is a human tragedy, and our deepest empathy and concerns are with the millions of people impacted,” the company said.
“These decisions have a direct impact on 15,000 Ikea co-workers, and the company groups will secure employment and income stability and provide support to them and their families in the region,” Ikea said.
While the stores operated by the Ingka group account for the bulk of the workforce affected, 12,000 people, Ikea also has nearly 2,500 employees working in manufacturing, with three factories in Russia.
According to the company, 47 suppliers in Russia and 10 in Belarus, would be affected by the decision, which also puts a stop to imports and exports between the two countries.
Prior to this announcement, Ikea had initially announced that it would leave its shops in Russia open, which was met with criticism in Sweden.
The Ikea Foundation also announced Thursday that it would donate 20 million euros ($22 million) in response to the UN’s appeal to address the humanitarian crisis.
“We have never provided a donation of this size to a crisis before,” a spokeswoman for the foundation told AFP.
German logistics giant DHL announced Wednesday it was stopping deliveries to Russia and Belarus, joining a growing list of Western businesses to cease operations in the countries after Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine.
The “inbound services to Russia and Belarus have been suspended”, DHL said in a statement, adding that it was “not accepting shipments to those countries until further notice”.
DHL, one of the world’s largest logistics groups, also closed its operation and offices in Ukraine until further notice to protect the “safety of our employees”, it said.
An increasing number of Western companies have broken off ties with Russia, which is the target of sanctions.
German logistics group DB Schenker announced the suspension of some services in Russia on Tuesday.
Airfreight deliveries to and from Europe were stopped after a number of Western countries blocked Russian planes from their airspace, DB Schenker said, while overland services continued with delays.
DB Schenker also suspended all services to and from Ukraine.
The Swiss logistics group Kuehne+Nagel on Tuesday similarly suspended all import shipments “with immediate effect and pending further notice” with the exception of medical and humanitarian deliveries.
Kuehne+Nagel likewise halted its operations in Ukraine.
The world’s biggest shipping companies on Tuesday also announced they were holding off on non-essential deliveries to Russia.
Danish shipping giant Maersk, Switzerland-based MSC and France’s CMA CGM all announced that they would no longer take bookings for goods from Russia and were suspending most deliveries.
“The accumulation of forces at the border is psychological pressure from our neighbours. We see nothing new here,” Zelensky was quoted as telling a group of European business leaders in Kyiv.
“As for the risks — the risks are there and have been there since 2014,” he said in reference to the year Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula and then backed a separatist insurgency in its industrial southeast.
“The issue is the degree of these risks, and how we respond to them.”
Ukraine has launched its own military drills that are due to mirror those being conducted by Belarus and Russia.
But military officials in Kyiv have said little about them out an apparent fear of escalating tensions.
Zelensky said Ukraine had “enough forces to honourably defend our country.”
The games have exacerbated deeply strained ties between Russia and the West, which accuses Moscow of massing approximately 100,000 troops around the borders of Ukraine for a potential invasion.
British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss was in Moscow Thursday for talks with her Russian counterpart to urge the Kremlin not to attack or face “massive consequences” from Western sanctions.
Moscow and Minsk have not disclosed how many troops are participating in the drills, but the United States has said Russia was planning to dispatch 30,000 troops personnel to several regions in ex-Soviet Belarus.
Responding to Western concerns, the Kremlin has insisted that it has no intention of leaving the troops permanently on Belarusian territory.
Pope Francis has pledged 100,000 euros ($114,000) to help migrants blocked on the border between Poland and Belarus, the Vatican announced Tuesday.
The money includes support for the Catholic charity Caritas Poland “to deal with the migration emergency on the border between the two countries”, it said.
Since last summer, thousands of migrants — most of them from the Middle East, including war-torn Syria — have crossed or attempted to cross the Polish frontier from Belarus and enter the European Union.
Dozens of migrants have been detained after crossing into Poland from Belarus, Warsaw said Sunday, warning of a possible larger breakthrough ahead of an EU meeting to widen sanctions on Belarus.
Police said on Twitter that 50 migrants had crossed the heavily-guarded EU and NATO border near the village of Starzyna “by force” on Saturday.
They were all later detained, the border guard said, adding that they could see signs of “a bigger attempt at crossing the border today”.
Thousands of migrants from the Middle East are camped out on the EU-Belarus border, creating a stand-off between the EU and US on one side and Belarus and its ally Russia on the other.
Western countries accuse Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko’s regime of deliberately engineering the crisis by encouraging migrants to come to Belarus and then taking them to the border.
Belarus denies the charges and blames the West.
“If someone thinks that Lukashenko or Belarusians will flinch, then this will not happen,” Lukashenko, referring to himself in the third person, said in an interview released on Saturday.
Aid agencies say at least 10 migrants have died so far and have warned of a humanitarian crisis unfolding as temperatures drop below freezing, urging a de-escalation to help the migrants.
In the biggest camp, near the village of Bruzgi in Belarus, Belarusian authorities say there are 2,000 people, including pregnant women and children.
Belarusian authorities have delivered aid including tents and heaters — a move that could make the camp a semi-permanent presence on the border.
– ‘Provocation’ on border? –
Poland has refused to allow the migrants in and has accused Belarus of preventing them from leaving.
Interior Minister Mariusz Kaminski on Saturday said a rumour was being spread among the migrants that on Monday Poland would allow them through and coaches would come from Germany to pick them up.
“A provocation is being prepared,” Kaminski said.
The government has sent a text message to all foreign mobile phones along the border saying: “It’s a total lie and nonsense! Poland will continue to protect its border with Belarus.
“Those who spread such rumours seek to encourage the migrants to storm the border, which may lead to dangerous developments,” the text message reads.
EU foreign ministers are also due to meet on Monday to widen the sanctions already imposed on Belarus for its crackdown on opponents of Lukashenko, who has ruled the country for nearly 30 years.
EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said ministers would allow sanctions on anyone “taking part in the trafficking of migrants” in Belarus, including airlines, travel agencies and officials.
“Lukashenko got it wrong. He thought that by acting in this way he would twist our arm and force us to cancel the sanctions. The opposite is happening,” Borrell told Journal du Dimanche, a French weekly.
Following pressure from EU diplomats, Turkey has now banned Iraqis, Syrians and Yemenis from flying to Belarus and private Syrian carrier Cham Wings Airlines is also halting flights to Minsk.
Russian President Vladimir Putin told the European Union on Thursday it needs to start talks with Belarus if it hopes to resolve a crisis over hundreds of migrants trapped on the border with Poland.
Concern is growing for the about 2,000 migrants, mainly Kurds from the Middle East, who are living in a tent camp on the border between Belarus and Poland in near-freezing temperatures.
Poland is refusing to allow the migrants to cross, accusing Minsk of luring them to Belarus to send across the border in revenge for sanctions.
The EU has so far refused any direct contacts with Belarus’s strongman leader Alexander Lukashenko, who on Thursday warned that any new sanctions would be met with a response, including potentially cutting off natural gas transit to Europe.
In his second phone call with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in as many days, Putin “spoke in favour of restoring contacts between EU states and Belarus in order to resolve this problem,” the Kremlin said in a statement.
Merkel had called Putin on Wednesday to ask him to “use his influence” on Lukashenko to end the crisis.
The EU cut off contacts with Lukashenko and imposed sanctions after a heavy crackdown on the opposition following a disputed presidential election last year.
The bloc is expected to decide next week to impose new sanctions for human trafficking because of the migrant crisis.
Lukashenko said Thursday that Minsk “must respond” if the EU takes new measures, raising the possibility of cutting off transit through a pipeline that carries Russian natural gas through Belarus to Poland and further into Europe.
“We are heating Europe, and they are threatening us,” he said. “And what if we halt natural gas supplies?”
Opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya said Lukashenko was bluffing about cutting off gas and urged the EU to stand firm.
“It would be more harmful for him, for Belarus, than for the European Union and I can suppose it’s bluffing,” Tikhanovskaya, who fled Belarus after claiming victory in last year’s vote, told AFP in Berlin.
“We are grateful for the principled position of European countries that they are not going to communicate with (an) illegitimate person,” she said.
The UN Security Council was to meet later Thursday for emergency talks on the crisis.
‘New kind of war’
Poland has deployed 15,000 troops along the border, put up a fence topped with barbed wire and approved construction of a wall on the frontier with Belarus.
In a statement released for Poland’s Independence Day on Thursday, Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said his country was facing a “new kind of war” whose “ammunition is civilians”.
Migrants have been trying to cross the border for months but the crisis came to a head when hundreds made a concerted effort on Monday and were pushed back by Polish border guards.
They set up a camp on the border, sheltering in tents and burning wood from local forests to keep warm, blocked by Polish guards behind razor-wire.
At least 10 migrants have died on the border in recent months, seven of them on the Polish side, according to Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza.
Teams from the UN refugee agency, the International Organization for Migration and the Red Cross visited the camp on Thursday to check on conditions and deliver aid, including hygiene kits and diapers.
“Priorities now are to prevent loss of life and move people to safer locations in Belarus,” UNHCR chief Filippo Grandi said on Twitter.
Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis told reporters his country was pushing for an evacuation corridor from the border to the Belarusian city of Grodno, which has an airport that could be used to send people back to their home countries.
Journalists and charity workers have been banned from the immediate border area by Polish authorities under state of emergency rules.
Fear in Polish town
Residents in the Polish town of Sokolka near the border said they were worried by the growing tensions but voiced support for the Polish government’s tough stance.
“I’m afraid of the migrants getting through and what the consequences would be,” said Henryk Lenkiewicz, a 67-year-old pensioner walking by a community noticeboard in the town centre.
Poland has accused Putin of masterminding the crisis, a claim the Kremlin has dismissed as “irresponsible”.
Moscow and Minsk have close economic, political and military ties and Russian air force planes have been flying patrols over Belarus this week, including two Tu-160 strategic bombers on Thursday that were accompanied by Belarusian Su-30S fighter jets.
Belarus’s strongman leader Alexander Lukashenko on Thursday threatened to cut off gas to Europe in retaliation for any new sanctions imposed over the migrant crisis on his country’s border with EU member Poland.
“If they impose additional sanctions on us… we must respond,” Lukashenko told government officials in comments released by the presidency.
“We are warming Europe, and they are threatening us,” he said, pointing out that Russia’s Yamal-Europe pipeline transits through Belarus to Poland.
Lukashenko also claimed that migrants on the border had been receiving weapons and explosives from conflict-riven eastern Ukraine for the past two days.
“Why are weapons coming here? They want to stage a provocation,” Lukashenko said, adding that the Belarusian military should be vigilant.
Migrants have been trying to cross the Belarus-Poland border for months but the crisis reached a new level when hundreds made a concerted effort this week and were pushed back by Polish borders guards.
Western governments accuse Lukashenko’s government of luring them to his country and sending them to cross into Poland in retaliation for previous sanctions over Minsk’s crackdown on the opposition.
On Wednesday, EU chief Ursula von der Leyen said the EU would hit Belarus with fresh sanctions next week over the crisis.
Poland has accused Minsk of “state terrorism” for using intimidation to force migrants to breach the border.
Belarus has in turn accused Poland of violating international norms by blocking the migrants and beating them back with violence.
Lukashenko said there were a lot of children and pregnant women among the refugees, adding they should receive necessary help.
“There are a lot of women who are eight or nine months pregnant,” he said. “When they are due of course we’ll take them to the hospital and look after them further.”