Belarus proposes plan to ease border crisis; group of Iraqis flown home

  • First repatriation flight to Iraq since August
  • Many are still stuck at the border trying to cross
  • The EU says Belarus is orchestrating the crisis
  • Belarus wants EU corridor for 2,000 migrants
  • Belarus says it will send 5,000 back to their country

BRUZGI, Belarus, November 18 (Reuters) – Belarus said on Thursday it had proposed a plan to resolve the migrant crisis at its borders, which would see the EU accept 2,000 migrants, while Minsk would send another 5,000 home.

It was unclear whether the plan could be acceptable to the EU, especially as it came with reservations and was announced shortly after the European Commission said that the situation of migrants could not be negotiated with Belarus.

But as a potential first concrete sign of easing the crisis, hundreds of Iraqis checked into a Minsk airport to fly back to Iraq earlier on Thursday, the first plane of this type in several months. Read more

European countries accuse Belarus of flying thousands of migrants in from the Middle East and forcing them to try to cross the border illegally. Belarus denies inciting the crisis.

Thousands of migrants have been trapped in freezing forests at the border. As a cruel sign of the harsh conditions there, a couple, both injured, told the Polish Center for International Aid, an NGO, on Thursday that their one-year-old child had died in the woods. Earlier, it had been estimated that at least eight people had died at the border in recent months.

An African migrant, whose identity was unknown, was buried Thursday in a Muslim cemetery in Bohoniki, in northeastern Poland, near Belarus, the second migrant burial there this week. Read more

“It’s hard,” said Maciej Szczesnowicz, leader of the local Tatar Muslim community. “It hurts me that people went to another country … and met such a fate here in Poland.”

HUMANITARIAN CORRIDOR?

A Reuters reporter on the Belarusian side of the border saw a group of 200-300 people, mostly men but also families with young children, wrapped in blankets and huddled around makeshift bonfires trying to keep warm near the Kuznica-Bruzgi border. .

Some had pitched a couple of tents and one could see a man 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.

Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko discussed his proposal with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in a phone call on Wednesday, their second call this week, Lukashenko’s spokeswoman was quoted as saying by the Belta news agency. Merkel had agreed to discuss it with the EU, spokeswoman Natalia Eismont said.

“The European Union is creating a humanitarian corridor for the 2,000 refugees in the camp. We are committed to (as far as possible and if they so wish) facilitating the remaining 5,000 to return to their homeland.”

There was no immediate response from EU countries, but the bloc’s executive commission said earlier in the day that it could not negotiate with Belarus, describing Merkel’s phone calls with Lukashenko as merely “bilateral contacts”.

Eismont said migrants would only return to their country if they wanted to: “The only condition is their will. We will not force anyone back to Iraq, Syria or other countries.”

A large number of Iraqis are among those who have camped at Belarus’ borders to seek entry and a better life in the prosperous 27-nation EU. About 430, mostly Iraqi Kurds, checked in on a plane back to Iraq from Minsk on Thursday, the Iraqi Foreign Ministry said. Read more

There had been no other such flights since about 1,000 Iraqis were evacuated from Minsk in August, Iraqi Airways spokesman Hussein Jalil told Reuters.

“I would not return (to Iraq) if it were not for my wife,” a 30-year-old Iraqi Kurd, who declined to say his name, told Reuters on the eve of the evacuation flight. “She will not take me back to the border because she saw too many horrors over there.” The couple tried to cross at least eight times from Belarus to Lithuania and Poland.

Meanwhile, the Belarussian state airline Belavia has stopped allowing citizens of Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Syria and Yemen to board flights from Uzbekistan’s capital Tashkent to Minsk, Belta reported.

The EU has launched a diplomatic effort to alleviate the crisis by putting pressure on regional countries not to allow migrants to board flights to Belarus.

TRYING TO EXCEED THE LIMIT

While some migrants returned to Iraq, others made new attempts to cross the heavily guarded border.

Poland said the number of attempts to cross its border from Belarus had increased on Wednesday, with 501 individual attempts, including about 200 of people detained after breaking through, when a large group of about 500 made a push over.

In another incident, a couple dozen people threw stones and injured three soldiers and a police officer.

Belarus said earlier this week that it was moving some of the migrants away from the border. Belarusian television showed footage of hundreds of migrants, including families, many sitting on mattresses that had been moved to a large warehouse.

Foreign ministers from the G7 group of wealthy economies said Belarus was orchestrating the crisis.

“These relentless actions are endangering the lives of the people,” the statement, issued Thursday by G7 President Britain, said. “We urge the regime to immediately cease its aggressive and exploitative campaign to prevent further deaths and suffering.”

Reporting by Kacper Pempel in Belarus, Pawel Florkiewicz, Alan Charlish, Anna Koper in Poland, Charlotte Bruneau in Iraq, Andrius Sytas in Lithuania, Matthias Williams in Ukraine, Vladimir Soldatkin and Tom Balmfort in Moscow; Writing by Ingrid Melander; Editing Timothy Heritage and Peter Graff

Our standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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