Ukraine on Wednesday accused Belarus of “exacerbating” the crisis resulting from the blockade of 2,000 Jewish pilgrims at the border because of restrictions linked to the coronavirus. Others continue to arrive in precarious conditions.
The number of people in various places in the “no man’s land” between these two countries rose from some 700 on Tuesday to nearly 2,000 during the day on Wednesday, according to Ukrainian border guards who nevertheless claim to have the situation ” under control”.
“Not enough resources”
Mainly arriving from Israel, but also from France, Great Britain and the United States, these Hasidic Jews hoped to participate in a pilgrimage to Uman, in central Ukraine, and passed through Belarus, thinking they could bypass the restrictions put in place by Kiev in the face of the resurgence of cases of the new coronavirus on Ukrainian territory.
These pilgrims, according to the Belarusian Red Cross, do not have “sufficient resources to meet their needs” and a humanitarian crisis is now feared.
Images sent to AFP on Tuesday by one of these castaways, Haim Weitshandler, show groups of men and children sitting or lying on the ground at night or singing in front of a cordon of the Ukrainian riot police.
To these problems was added Wednesday a diplomatic crisis, Kiev accusing Minsk of seeking to exploit the situation, against a backdrop of tensions between the two capitals.
The Ukrainian presidency called on the Belarusian authorities to “stop exacerbating” this crisis at the border and “not to peddle false statements that bring hope to the pilgrims” about its opening.
Ukraine and Belarus have seen their relations strain since the Belarusian presidential election on August 9, which sparked an unprecedented protest movement against President Alexander Lukashenko, accused of having tampered with the ballot and repressed the opposition.
“Doubtful” presidential election
The Ukrainian presidency also raised the issue in its statement on pilgrims, noting that Ukraine considered the August 9 presidential election “doubtful” and said it was being “insulted” by Belarus. .
Mr. Loukachenko meanwhile asked Tuesday “the opening of a humanitarian corridor” to Uman for the pilgrims. Most are stuck at the Novi Yarylovychi border post, which Ukrainian authorities have “completely closed”, while ensuring that they “are supplied with food and water”.
AFP journalists present at the Ukrainian border on Wednesday noted a large presence of the police, the national guard and the emergency services.
“I respect your traditions, but this year you cannot go to Uman. I am ready to repeat it a thousand times if necessary”, the head of the Ukrainian border guards, Sergey Deynek, told the pilgrims during the night. .
Water and food
Alexey Dioubenkov, a spokesman for Belarusian border guards quoted by the Belta state news agency, said new groups of pilgrims continued to make their way to the border every hour.
“There have been no provocations, no tense situation since yesterday. They are periodically receiving drinking water and food,” Andriï Demchenko, the Ukrainian border guard, told AFP.
Every year at the time of the Jewish New Year, tens of thousands of pilgrims go to Uman to pray at the tomb of Rabbi Nahman of Breslev (1772-1810), the founder of a branch of ultra-Orthodox Judaism, Hasidism. This year, the pilgrimage is scheduled to last from September 18 to 28.
The Ukrainian and Israeli authorities had called on Hasidic Jews to give it up this year because of the pandemic caused by the coronavirus, especially since Ukraine banned for a month at the end of August the entry of foreigners into its territory. Israel, for its part, reimposed national containment on Sunday.