TERESPOL, Poland (AP) — Polish border guards on Monday blocked 10 nationalistic Russian bikers loyal to President Vladimir Putin from entering Poland as part of a ride to commemorate the Red Army’s victory over Nazi Germany 70 years ago.
The bikers — who have stirred controversy with their support for Russia’s annexation of Crimea — approached the Polish border from Belarus on Monday morning and spent about three hours being questioned and searched by the Polish border guards before they were turned back.
“These people will not cross into Poland,” Dariusz Sienicki, a spokesman for the regional border guards said.
The incident comes amid deep tensions between the West and Russia over Moscow’s actions in Ukraine. Poland, which was under Moscow’s control for most of the past two and a half centuries, has been one of the most outspoken European voices in favor of sanctions on Russia.
The bikers, members of a group called the Night Wolves, had wanted to travel across Eastern Europe to honor the Red Army soldiers who died as they and Western Allies defeated Hitler’s Germany, visiting their graves and other war sites. Their aim was to arrive in Berlin to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II on May 9.
“I’m very disappointed. This is lawlessness,” said Vitaly Kuznetsov, a black-clad 44-year old biker and businessman from Moscow who was being turned back. “But we are certainly not going to give up the idea of celebrating May 9 in Berlin. Our goal is Berlin.”
Polish authorities had said Friday that they would not let the bikers enter the country. They insisted the move was not political, but Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz and other leaders have described the bikers’ plans as a “provocation.”
The leaders have not explained why they see the bikers as provocative. Polish activists who also oppose their entry into the country say they object to the bikers’ strong support for the Russian annexation of Crimea and alleged support for pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine.
“This is not a normal bike club. They are tools in the hand of Vladimir Putin to make propaganda,” said Tomasz Czuwara, spokesman for the Open Dialog Foundation, a Polish group that supports Ukraine.
Despite Poland’s ban, 15 black leather-clad bikers approached the border crossing between Brest, Belarus, and Terespol, Poland, on Monday morning. Five did not have visas and said they were just there to see their colleagues off.
One of the bikers, Andrei Bobrovsky said they were “thoroughly searched, to the last sock.”
Alexander Zaldostanov, leader of the Night Wolves, said they will make the run to Berlin anyway.
“Other people who won’t say they are Night Wolves will take this route and accomplish this mission that we were planning to do for the 70th anniversary of the Great Victory,” he said on LifeNews, a Russian TV channel.
Not all Poles fear the Night Wolves. The head of a Polish bikers’ group, Wiktor Wegrzyn, called the Polish opposition to the bikers “anti-Russia hysteria.”
After the Russian bikers were denied entry, about 100 Polish bikers on the Polish side of the border honked their horns and flashed their lights in protest. They had gathered earlier Monday hoping to escort the Russians through Poland.
The Russian bikers left Russia on Saturday and on Sunday they paid homage in Russia at a memorial to Polish prisoners of war killed in the Katyn massacres by the Soviet Union during World War II.
Vanessa Gera and Monika Scislowska in Warsaw, Nataliya Vasilyeva in Moscow, Yuras Karmanau in Minsk, Belarus, and Sergei Grits in Brest, Belarus, contributed to this report.
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