Hundreds try to cross Belarus border despite easing of crisis

SOKOLKA, POLAND, (AFP):- Hundreds of migrants have again tried to cross the border from Belarus, Polish officials said Friday, despite signs of an easing of the crisis after migrants left a makeshift encampment.

Border guards said there were two attempted crossings on what is the eastern border of the European Union and NATO — one involving 500 migrants, some of whom threw rocks and tear gas cannisters.

The border guards said they had detained 45 migrants.

Belarusian state news agency Belta said 2,000 migrants who had been camped out in freezing conditions on the border spent the night in a nearby warehouse after clearing out of their camp.

Belta published photos of the migrants lying on mats in the facility and wrote that “for several it was their first warm night”.

The West accuses Belarus of artificially creating a migrant crisis by bringing in would-be migrants and taking them to the border with the promise of an easy crossing into the EU.

Belarus has denied this and urged the EU to take them in.

Minsk said Thursday that there were a total of around 7,000 migrants in the ex-Soviet country.

It said that it would take responsibility for sending around 5,000 of those migrants home and claimed that the EU would create a “humanitarian corridor” to Germany for around 2,000.

But Germany swiftly shot down that claim, saying it was not true that it would take in 2,000 migrants.

Meanwhile hundreds of Iraqis who had failed to cross into the EU from Belarus returned home on Thursday on the first repatriation flight organised by Baghdad.

An Iraqi Airways plane brought 431 people home.

– ‘More aggressive’ crossing attempts –

Despite the repatriations, Poland said pressure on the border was continuing.

“There are still attempts by migrants to cross the border illegally,” said Marek Pietrzak, spokesman of Poland’s Territorial Defence Force, which has soldiers on the border.

“We can see how they are inspired and supervised by officers of the Belarusian border guard and other Belarusian uniformed services,” he told TV Republika.

The border guards on Friday said on Twitter that “two large groups have tried to cross”.

“People in the largest group of around 500 threw rocks and someone also hurled tear gas at Polish officials. At the same time the Belarusian personnel were using lasers to blind them,” border guard spokeswoman Anna Michalska told AFP.

She said four Polish soldiers had sustained injuries that did not require hospitalisation.

Michalska said there were fewer attempted breaches at the border compared to last month but the more recent ones “have become more aggressive”.

– ‘Effort to weaponise migration’ –

The EU and US this week announced fresh sanctions on the Belarusian regime, which has crushed political opposition and independent media since a disputed presidential election last year.

The EU and foreign ministers of the G7 global powers called on Lukashenko’s regime “to cease immediately its aggressive and exploitative campaign”.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters on a visit to Nigeria that the US could add to sanctions already imposed on the country.

“This effort to weaponise migration has to stop,” he said. “First and foremost, it is doing a terrible injustice to these people that it has victimised by making them pawns.”

Polish media say at least 11 migrants have died since the crisis began over the summer.

A medical charity on Thursday said it had come to the aid of a Syrian couple who reported their one-year-old child had died in the forest.

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