By Kacper Pempel and Charlotte Bruneau
BRUZGI, Belarus -Hundreds of Iraqis who had camped for weeks at Belarus's freezing borders with the EU checked in for a flight back to Iraq on Thursday, the first such flight in months amid a stand-off between the West over Minsk over the fate of migrants.
It was not immediately clear if the repatriation flight was a sign the crisis was easing, or just a temporary reprieve.
European countries accuse Belarus of flying thousands of migrants in from the Middle East and pushing them to attempt to cross the frontier illegally. Belarus denies fomenting the crisis but says it can help resolve it only if the EU lifts sanctions it imposed after a crackdown on protests last year.
In a cruel sign of the harsh conditions migrants face at the border, an aid group, the Polish Centre for International Aid, said an injured couple it found early on Thursday told them their one-year-old child had died in the forest.
So far, it had been estimated that at least eight people had died at the border in recent months.
Large numbers of Iraqis are among those who have camped at Belarus's borders, seeking entry and a better life in the prosperous 27-nation EU. Some 430, mostly Iraqi Kurds, checked in for a flight back to Iraq from Minsk on Thursday, the Iraqi foreign ministry said.
There had been no other such flights since about 1,000 Iraqis were evacuated from Minsk in August, a spokesperson for Iraqi Airways, Hussein Jalil, told Reuters.
"I would not go back (to Iraq) if it wasn't for my wife," a 30-year-old Iraqi Kurd, who declined to give his name, told Reuters a day ahead of the evacuation flight. "She does not want to go back with me to the border, because she saw too many horrors over there." The couple attempted to cross at least eight times from Belarus to Lithuania and Poland.
Meanwhile, Belarusian state airline Belavia has stopped allowing citizens from Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Syria and Yemen to board flights from Uzbekistan's Tashkent to Minsk, the Belta news agency cited the carrier as saying on Thursday.
The EU has launched a diplomatic effort to resolve the crisis by putting pressure on regional countries not to allow migrants to board flights for Belarus.
TRYING TO CROSS THE BORDER
While some migrants returned to Iraq, others, desperate to reach the EU, attempted to cross the heavily-guarded border.
Poland said the number of attempts to cross its border from Belarus had risen on Wednesday, with 501 attempts, including around 200 consisting of people who were detained after breaking through when a big group of around 500 made a push across.
In another incident, a few dozen people threw stones, injuring three soldiers and a police officer.
Around 200-300 people, mainly men but also families with young children, remained huddled around makeshift fires near the Kuznica-Bruzgi border point, a Reuters reporter on the Belarusian side of the frontier said.
Others had set up a few tents, and a man could be seen feeding a baby. They were surrounded by Belarusian soldiers wearing masks, helmets and vests, and a water cannon could be seen on the Polish side of the border.
There are about 1,000 people grouped in total near the Bruzgi border crossing, the border guard spokesperson said, adding that this was about half the previous number. Belarus TV showed footage of hundreds of migrants, including families, many sitting on mattresses, who had been moved to a large warehouse.
Foreign ministers from the G7 group of wealthy economies said Belarus was orchestrating the crisis.
"These callous acts are putting people's lives at risk," said the statement, issued on Thursday by G7 chair Britain. "We call on the regime to cease immediately its aggressive and exploitative campaign in order to prevent further deaths and suffering."
EU leaders have shunned Belarus's President Alexander Lukashenko since a crackdown on pro-democracy protesters after a disputed election last year. But they have begun reaching out directly to him as part of efforts to resolve the border crisis.
On Wednesday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke to him for the second time this week. Her spokesman said she stressed the need to let the United Nations and European Commission provide aid to migrants. Belarus said the pair had come to "an understanding", agreeing that Belarus and EU officials would hold talks as soon as possible.
But the European Union's executive said there could be no negotiation with Belarus over the plight of the migrants, describing Merkel's phone calls with Lukashenko as just "bilateral contacts".