By Essi Lehto and Anne Kauranen
HELSINKI (Reuters) -Finland will erect barriers at four crossings on its border with Russia from midnight, officials said on Friday, in a bid to stem an increase in migrants that Helsinki says has been orchestrated by Moscow.
Finland has accused Russian authorities of funnelling migrants to the crossings in retaliation for its decision to increase defence cooperation with the United States, an assertion dismissed by the Kremlin.
Barriers will go up at four of the nine crossings with Russia, at Vaalimaa, Nuijamaa, Imatra and Niirala in its southeast, and the stations will remain closed for all traffic until Feb. 18, the Finnish Border Guard said.
The first physical confrontation between border guards and migrants took place at Niirala border station before 1900 local time (1700 GMT), more than an hour before the station’s closing time, Finland’s public broadcaster YLE reported.
YLE witnessed one migrant being stopped with a chemical irritant and others being pushed back by border guards after a group of some 30 migrants arrived at the Niirala station from Russia on foot and on bicycles and tried to storm through the entry point.
“Our aim is to use barrier devices to prevent entry,” the Border Guard’s head of international affairs, Matti Pitkaniitty, told reporters. The measures were a response to changes in Russia’s border policy, he added.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Friday that Finland was making a “big mistake” by choosing a path of confrontation with Russia, state news agency TASS reported.
“(One can) only express deep regret that the Finnish authorities have taken the path of destroying bilateral relations,” TASS quoted Peskov as saying.
Some 300 asylum seekers, mostly from Iraq, Yemen, Somalia and Syria, have arrived in Finland this week, according to the Border Guard.
Nearly 100 had entered Finland from Russia by midday on Friday alone, officials said.
Finland shares a 1,340-km (833-mile) border with Russia that also serves as the EU’s external border.
Helsinki angered Moscow when it joined the NATO military alliance in April following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, after decades of non-alignment.
From Saturday asylum seekers arriving via Russia will only be allowed to hand in their applications at two northern border crossings, at Salla and Vartius, Pitkaniitty said.
Finland’s ombudsman for non-discrimination said on Thursday Helsinki still had a duty under international treaties and EU law to allow asylum seekers to seek protection.
European Union border agency Frontex told Reuters it would send officers to Finland to help safeguard the frontier.
“We … are preparing to provide immediate assistance through the additional deployment of our standing corps officers,” a Frontex spokesperson said in an email.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen on Thursday thanked the Finnish authorities for protecting the bloc’s external border. “Russia’s instrumentalisation of migrants is shameful,” she added.
(Reporting by Essi Lehto and Anne Kauranen; additional reporting by Jan Strupczewski in Brussels and Moscow bureau; editing by Terje Solsvik, Gareth Jones, Andrew Heavens and Jonathan Oatis)