EU nations, the US and UK say Belarus is putting migrants’ lives in danger for political purposes.
Western members of the UN Security Council have condemned Belarus’s actions in the escalating migrant crisis on its border with Poland.
In a strongly worded statement, they accused Belarus of using the migrants to destabilise the European Union’s eastern border.
Russia, a key ally of Belarus, rejected the accusations.
Earlier, Belarus’ authoritarian leader threatened to cut off gas supplies to Europe if new sanctions were imposed.
Thousands of people, mostly from Iraq, Syria and Yemen, have been camping at the border with Poland, enduring freezing conditions in the hope of crossing into the EU. The migrants are mainly young men – but there are also women and children.
Dramatic footage earlier this week showed desperate crowds trying to cut through a barbed wire fence to enter Poland – only to be pushed back by Polish border guards and the army. However, some migrants have managed to slip through.
At least seven people have died on the Polish side of the border, many from hypothermia in recent months.
At Thursday’s emergency UN Security Council meeting, the Western member states issued a joint statement, accusing Belarus of putting migrants’ lives in danger “for political purposes”.
They also said Belarus was trying to divert “attention away from its own increasing human rights violations”.
The statement was issued by France, the UK and the US, all veto-wielding permanent Council members. They were joined by Albania, Estonia and the Republic of Ireland.
Russia, also a veto-holding permanent Council member, rejected the accusations and blamed Poland and neighbouring Lithuania for mistreating migrants.
“There are a lot of cases when Polish and Lithuanian border guards beat migrants and pushed them back to Belarusian territory,” said the Russian deputy ambassador to the UN, Dmitry Polyanskiy.
“I would say that this is total shame and a total violation of any possible international conventions and rules.”
Earlier on Thursday, Belarus’s authoritarian leader Alexander Lukashenko said his country “must respond” if the EU – which accuses the government in Minsk of undermining the bloc’s security – were to impose new sanctions.
“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.
Belarusian national carrier Belavia 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.
Meanwhile at the Polish border, stranded migrants threw stones and attempted to break a razor wire fence.
Poland has been accused of pushing people back across the border into Belarus, contrary to international rules of asylum.
“There’s no way to escape,” 33-year-old Shwan Kurd told the BBC, who described arriving in Belarus at the start of November.
“Poland won’t let us in. We are so hungry. There’s no water or food here. There are little children, old men and women,” he said.