EU to tighten visa rules for Belarus officials over migrants

BRUSSELS, Sept 29 (Reuters) - The European Union will tighten visa rules for Belarusian state officials, Europe's migration commissioner said on Wednesday, in retaliation for what she called Minsk's aggressive effort to destabilise the bloc by pushing in irregular migrants.

The EU accuses President Alexander Lukashenko of orchestrating a sharp rise in migrant arrivals across the Belarus border with bloc members Poland, Lithuania and Latvia. The increase happened after the 27-nation union slapped sanctions on Minsk over human rights abuses and an election widely deemed rigged.

"We have an aggressive regime, Lukashenko, that is actually pushing migrants ... to the European border to destabilise the European Union," the bloc's Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson told journalists. "This is an act of aggression."

Johansson made the comments as part of an update on stalled efforts to agree a new EU migration system to replace the one that failed amid a 2015-16 spike in Mediterranean immigration.

Stressing that data from EU law enforcement agency Europol shows 90% of those arriving irregularly in the bloc have used people smugglers along the way, she proposed to EU states that they step up their fight against such traffickers.

For Belarus, she said tightening visa procedures for state officials - but not ordinary Belarusians - was needed.

"What we are seeing now is a desperate Lukashenko," she said. "This is a regime that has denied its own people free and fair elections. This is a regime that is putting political opposition in jail."

"This is a regime that has hijacked a passenger flight... and now is... using innocent people in an act of aggression. This is not a regime we should cooperate with."

Lukashenko has blamed the West for what he said was a looming humanitarian catastrophe this winter at the Belarusian-Polish border.

The EU and Belarus enacted a new visa facilitation deal in July last year to ease procedures and reduce costs for Belarusians willing to visit the bloc briefly.

But Minsk has since withdrawn from its linked EU readmission agreement, which establishes cooperation on sending away people who stay in the bloc without the formal right to do so.

That came as the EU sanctioned Belarus over a disputed election last August and a crackdown on protests after Lukashenko claimed victory and extended his 26-year-long rule.

The bloc then stepped up sanctions, introducing broader economic curbs on Minsk after Belarus forced a Ryanair flight to land on its soil last May to arrest a dissident on board.

Migrants from Iraq, Kurdistan, Congo and Cameroon then started appearing on the Belarus border with Lithuania, which had no such immigration in the past, and then on its frontiers with Latvia and Poland.

Five people are reported to have died on the Polish-Belarusian border zone. Johansson demanded Warsaw investigate.

The nationalist, anti-immigration Law and Justice (PiS) party ruling in Poland has established an emergency zone along the frontier with Belarus, meaning no journalists or rights activists are allowed to witness developments there.

"It is totally unacceptable that people are dying at our borders," Johansson said, adding she was traveling to Warsaw on Thursday to meet Poland's interior minister.

Reporting by Gabriela Baczynska, Editing by William Maclean

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