August 2, 2023 By Vanessa Gera, The Associated Press
WARSAW, Poland (AP) — Poland’s government said that two Belarusian helicopters entered Poland’s airspace on Tuesday, an incident that comes amid rising tensions along the NATO member’s border with the Russian ally.
Warsaw authorities said that in reaction, they were going to increase Poland’s military presence along the border and that they had summoned Belarus’ top diplomat in Warsaw in protest.
NATO was also informed of the incident, the Defense Ministry said.
Anxieties have sparked in Poland and in neighbouring Lithuania after mercenaries from the Russia-linked Wagner group arrived in Belarus following their short-lived rebellion against the Kremlin in June.
Poland is a member of both the European Union and NATO, and it has worried about its security with Russian ally Belarus and Ukraine on its eastern border.
For two years, large numbers of migrants and refugees from the Middle East and Africa have been attempting to enter Poland and Lithuania — also an EU and NATO member. The two nations and other European countries view the migration as an attempt by Moscow-ally Belarus to create instability.
Earlier Tuesday, Polish residents in an area near the border with Belarus reported seeing helicopters with Belarusian insignia which they said flew overhead. Some posted photos of the aircraft. Poland’s military initially denied that they had crossed into Polish airspace.
But by evening, the Defense Ministry acknowledged that “there was a violation of Polish airspace by two Belarusian helicopters that were carrying out training near the border.” It added that Belarus had earlier informed Poland of plans to carry out training exercises in the area. It said they were flying at a low altitude and were not picked up by radar.
In reaction to the incursion, Defense Minister Mariusz Błaszczak ordered an increase in the number of soldiers along the border, as well as an increase in other resources, including combat helicopters, the ministry said.
Separately, the Foreign Ministry said that the charge d’affaires of Belarus was “immediately summoned” and that Warsaw “issued a firm protest and called on the Belarusian side to immediately and in detail explain the incident.”
“The Polish side emphasized that the incident is perceived as another element of the escalation of tension on the Polish-Belarusian border. Poland expects Belarus to refrain from such activities,” the ministry said.
Poland’s Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said on Saturday that over 100 mercenaries belonging to Wagner in Belarus had moved close to the border with Poland. He said they were approaching the Suwalki Gap, a strategic stretch of Polish territory.