Poland says Belarus trucks migrants back to the frontier despite clearing camps

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WARSAW, Nov 19 (Reuters) – Poland accused Belarus on Friday of trucking hundreds of migrants back to the border and pushing them to attempt to cross illegally, only hours after clearing camps at the frontier.

The accusation by Poland made clear that an apparent change of tack this week by Minsk had yet to resolve the border crisis, which has spiralled into a major East-West confrontation.

European governments accuse Belarus of flying in thousands of people from the Middle East and pushing them to attempt to cross the border illegally. Around 10 migrants are believed to have died in the freezing woods. Belarus denies fomenting the crisis deliberately.

Belarus authorities cleared the main campson Thursday where thousands of people had been huddling by the Polish border. Hundreds of Iraqis were also sent home on the first repatriation flight from Minsk in months.

But Polish Border Guard spokesperson Anna Michalska said that by Thursday evening Belarus authorities were already trucking hundreds of migrants back and forcing them to try to cross in darkness.

“(The Belarusians) were bringing more migrants to the place where there was a forced attempt to cross,” she said. “At the beginning there were 100 people, but then the Belarusian side brought more people in trucks. Then there were 500 people.”

WAREHOUSES

The migrants from the camp were taken on Thursday to a large warehouse, and journalists were permitted to film them. Hundreds slept on mattresses on the floor.

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko discussed the crisis on Friday by telephone with his ally, Russian President Vladimir Putin. They stressed the importance of cooperation between Belarus and the EU, said the Kremlin, which has long said Europe must resolve the crisis directly with Minsk.

Europeans have shunned Lukashenko and imposed sanctions on Belarus since a crackdown on protesters following a disputed election last year. They reached out cautiously in the past week, with German Chancellor Angela Merkel speaking to Lukashenko twice by phone.

But on Thursday the European Commission and Germany rejected a proposal that Minsk said it had made to Merkel, under which EU countries would take in 2,000 migrants from Belarus, and 5,000 others who agreed to return home would be sent back.

The United States accused Minsk of using the migrants as “pawns in its efforts to be disruptive”.

Polish authorities said that the cleared camp sites did appear to be empty on Friday.

“In these places it is calm…This may mean that the current actions of Polish services at the border are effective,” Polish police tweeted.

Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Belarusian counterpart Alexander Lukashenko held another phone call about the migrant crisis on Belarus’ border with Poland and stressed the importance of cooperation between Minsk and the European Union, the Kremlin said on Friday.

Migrants again tried crossing overnight from Belarus, although in smaller numbers and smaller groups, Polish authorities said on Friday, a day after Belarus cleared the main camps where people from the Middle East had huddled at the border. 

Photo – A handout photo made available by Belta news agency shows people stranded at the Belarusian-Polish border near the Bruzgi-Kuznica checkpoint, in the Grodno region, Belarus, 17 November 2021. EPA-EFE/LEONID SCHEGLOV/BELTA HANDOUT

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