Belarusian president calls for European powers to work with Minsk but Berlin rejects proposal to take in 2,000 people.
More than 100 refugees have been flown out of Belarus, with more people scheduled to depart, according to Belarusian authorities.
The group of 118 people left on Monday from the country’s national airport in the capital, Minsk, the head of the migration department at Belarus’s interior ministry, Alexei Begun, told state news agency BELTA on Tuesday.
Begun said another group was due to fly out of the country on Tuesday, signalling apparently stronger efforts to repatriate the thousands stranded in the country.
He did not give any further details about how many people were set to leave or where they were headed but said the embassies of several countries – including Syria and Iraq – were organising repatriation flights for nationals stranded in Belarus.
Begun said Belarusian authorities are “assisting” those who wish to return to their home countries and working with the Geneva-based International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to resolve the situation.
The migration crisis began in August and recently escalated, with thousands travelling to Belarus in hopes of entering the European Union, only to be met with shuttered borders.
Warsaw and its Western allies blame Minsk for enticing people, mainly from the Middle East, into Belarus and funnelling them towards the EU via Poland and fellow EU member states Lithuania and Latvia.
Critics say Belarus is trying to destabilise Europe in response to Western sanctions imposed on President Alexander Lukashenko’s government over alleged human rights abuses following a disputed August 2020 election that handed him a sixth term in office.
The 67-year-old said his government cannot help resolve the situation unless the EU’s penalties are lifted.
EU rejects Minsk’s proposal for ending crisis
Last week, Lukashenko put forward a plan under which EU member state Germany would take in 2,000 people who are now in Belarus; 5,000 others would be sent back to their home countries.
A first group of 431 people was flown back to Iraq on a repatriation flight last week.
But Lukashenko’s proposal has been roundly rejected by Berlin and the EU’s executive arm, the European Commission.
Humanitarian agencies say as many as 13 people have died in the border region, with many suffering in cold, damp forests with little food or water as winter sets in.
Poland has in recent days accused Belarusian forces of continuing to ferry people to the frontier, despite Minsk having cleared the main camps along the barbed-wire boundary last week.
Lukashenko warned against further escalation on Monday, saying: “We need to get through to the Poles, to every Pole, and show them that we’re not barbarians, that we don’t want confrontation. We don’t need it. Because we understand that if we go too far, war is unavoidable.”
Russia, an ally and creditor of Minsk, made another show of support for its neighbour following Lukashenko’s remarks, with the secretary of the country’s Security Council stating on Tuesday that Belarus was Moscow’s “closest ally and strategic partner”.
Nikolai Patrushev said Russia, together with Belarus, will continue to “respond adequately to provocations, including military ones”, along their borders with other nations.