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Belarus: Iraqi migrants caught in border tensions fly home

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By Euronews  with AP
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Migrants warm themselves near a fire as they gather at the checkpoint "Kuznitsa" at the Belarus-Poland border near Grodno, Belarus, on Wednesday, Nov. 17, 2021.
Migrants warm themselves near a fire as they gather at the checkpoint "Kuznitsa" at the Belarus-Poland border near Grodno, Belarus, on Wednesday, Nov. 17, 2021.   -   Copyright  Maxim Guchek/BelTA via AP

A flight to Iraq took off from Minsk on Thursday to repatriate hundreds of migrants who had found themselves stranded at the Belarusian-Polish border, Minsk airport said.

There were 374 Iraqi migrants on board, Belarusian presidency spokeswoman Natalya Eismont said.

In recent days, Iraq has appealed for its citizens to fly home, telling them the way into the EU is closed.

A total of 430 Iraqis have registered for flights home, according to Iraq’s consul in Russia, Majid al-Kilani.

Meanwhile, state-run Belarusian media reported that there were no more migrants left in the makeshift camps near the Polish frontier after authorities opened a heated warehouse for them to shelter from the cold. This could not immediately be verified.

The moves mark a de-escalation in the migrant crisis opposing Belarus against the European Union.

Earlier on Thursday, Belarus said that there were around 7,000 migrants in the ex-Soviet country, with around 2,000 of them camped on the border with EU member Poland.

The West has accused Belarus' disputed president, Alexander Lukashenko, of using the migrants as pawns, flying them in from the Middle East and then sending them towards the EU's borders. It's alleged to be an attempt to destabilise the 27-nation bloc in retaliation for EU sanctions on Lukashenko's administration over a crackdown following a disputed presidential election in August 2020.

Minsk denies orchestrating the crisis, which has seen migrants entering the country since summer and then trying to cross into Poland, Lithuania and Latvia.

Poland 'detains 100 migrants after attempted border crossing'

Polish security forces arrested around a hundred migrants overnight as they tried to break across the border from Belarus, AFP reported Poland's defence ministry as saying on Thursday.

"A group of around 100 migrants were arrested by Polish services," the ministry said, accusing Belarusian forces of having "forced the migrants to throw stones at Polish soldiers to distract their attention".

The attempted crossing happened a few hundred metres away near the village of Dubicze Cerkiewne, it added.

A video released by the defence ministry showed Polish soldiers surrounding a large group of migrants grouped on the ground at night in a forest close to a barbed-wire fence.

The ministry claimed Belarusian special forces, the Spetsnaz, were behind the move.

Migrants taken to indoor shelter

Reports on Wednesday said hundreds of migrants who were camped in the cold on the Poland-Belarus border have been moved to a nearby warehouse in Belarusian territory, with some still harbouring hopes of entering the European Union.

On Wednesday, Poland’s Border Guard tweeted a video showing migrants with bags and backpacks being directed by Belarus forces away from the camp near the Kuznica border crossing. Polish Deputy Interior Minister Maciej Wasik said he had received information they were leaving on buses.

The Belarus state news agency Belta reported they were moved to a heated, warehouse-like building about 500 meters (yards) from the border near Bruzgi, giving them the chance to rest indoors after many days in tents.

One of them, an Iraqi Kurd named Miran Ali, took video in the warehouse and said Belarusian authorities told them they wouldn't be forced to return home. In response, the migrants chanted “Belarus! Belarus! Belarus!” in gratitude.

“This is the joy and happiness of Kurdish people after they were told that they will not be sent back to Kurdistan by force, and that they can wait here until Germany or one of the cities in Germany take them there,” Ali said as he recorded the video. “These people are expressing happiness and optimism in this cold and ugly camp.”

They sat on blankets, most still wrapped in heavy jackets and raincoats.

Maxim Guchek/BelTA
Migrants settle for the night in the logistics center in the checkpoint "Kuznitsa" at the Belarus-Poland border near Grodno, Belarus, on Tuesday, Nov. 16, 2021.Maxim Guchek/BelTA

Belta reported about 1,000 migrants agreed Tuesday to move into the building to “wait for the situation to resolve,” and it quoted some of them as saying that they are not planning to return to their home countries. Most of the building's space was allocated for the migrants, who were offered food, water, medical aid, mattresses and pillows, the news agency said.

Some migrants opted to stay camped near the border. Poland’s Defense Ministry posted video showing people and tents there, with some smoke rising from campfires.

The relocations came a day after a melee broke out at the border. Migrants threw stones at Polish forces massed on their side of the razor-wire fence, injuring 12, and they responded with water cannons and tear gas.

Warsaw accused Belarusian forces of instigating the conflict, while the government in Minsk denounced Poland's "violent actions".

Belarus also released video from its State Border Committee, alleging it showed Lithuanian border guards with dogs pushing migrants away from the Belarus-Lithuania frontier Tuesday night.

Lithuania denied the claim, releasing its own video of the incident. It blamed Belarusian officials for pushing the group of 13 migrants toward the Lithuanian side and preventing them from returning to Belarus after being stopped by the Lithuanian guards.

Delicate diplomacy

German Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke with Lukashenko for the second time this week, stressing that migrants should be given the chance to return to their home countries with the help of the UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration.

Steve Alter, a spokesman for the German Interior Ministry, denied Berlin was planning to bring the migrants to Germany. The “road to Belarus is a dead end for most people who want to go to Germany. There are no plans to approve taking people in,” he said.

German government spokesman Steffen Seibert said UN aid was starting to reach the migrants and it was important to ensure humanitarian agencies gain permanent access, even if it meant talking to Lukashenko, whose legitimacy is questioned by the West following the 2020 presidential election he is widely believed to have rigged.

“It makes sense to also talk to those who have the opportunity to change this situation in Minsk, even when it comes to a ruler whose legitimacy, like all other European member states, Germany does not recognize,” he said, adding that Merkel has coordinated with other EU partners and remains committed to the bloc’s stance of tightening sanctions on Minsk.

Meanwhile, Polish President Andrzej Duda said there is “no military threat” at the border from the primarily civilian police and border guards that are there to prevent illegal migration. The presence of the Polish military there is chiefly as a backup, he said on a visit to Montenegro.

Duda stressed that Poland won't accept any international decisions on the border standoff that are made without Warsaw's participation, referring to the talks involving Merkel and Lukashenko.

Information on both sides of the border is hard to verify due to government restrictions. A state of emergency in Poland is keeping journalists, human rights workers and others away from the border along a zone that is 3 kilometres deep, and Belarus limits the presence of independent journalists.

Estonia, which also is affected by migrant movements but to a lesser degree, said it would build a temporary razor wire barrier of up to 40 kilometres on its eastern border with Russia as an interim security solution.

This northernmost of the three Baltic nations with a population of 1.3 million, Estonia shares a 294-kilometre land border with Russia and a 340-kilometre border with Latvia. It does not neighbour Belarus.

Estonian Foreign Minister Eva-Maria Liimets told broadcaster ERR on Tuesday that the crisis stems from Lukashenko's bid to be recognised by the West as president and have EU sanctions lifted, stressing they must stay in place.

“In our view, it is important that the European Union remains united and exerts its influence on Belarus through action,” Liimets said, adding new sanctions should be imposed as soon as possible.

Additional sources • AFP