Belarus empties migrant camps at border as Putin calls for dialogue

Belarusian authorities cleared the main camps where migrants had huddled at the border with Poland yesterday in what appeared to be a major development in a crisis that has spiralled in recent weeks .

elarus state news agency Belta said the migrants sheltering in the forest had been taken to a warehouse in Belarus away from the border.

A spokesperson for Polish border guards confirmed the camps had been cleared.

“These camps are now empty. The migrants have been taken most likely to the transport logistics centre, which is not far from the Bruzgi border crossing,” the Polish spokesperson said.

“There were no other such camps, but there were groups appearing in other places trying to cross the border. We’ll see what happens in the next hours.

“There are still some people around, but it’s clearly emptying out.”

European countries accuse Belarus of having deliberately created the crisis by flying in migrants from the Middle East and pushing them to attempt to cross the borders illegally into Poland and Lithuania. Minsk denies deliberately fomenting it.

In recent weeks, hundreds of migrants have tried to cross the frontier at night and have clashed with Polish troops at the border.

Around 10 migrants are believed to have died in the freezing woods.

The move to clear the camps comes during a week of intensified diplomacy. German chancellor Angela Merkel spoke by telephone twice in three days to Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko, normally shunned by European leaders.

Belarus said on Wednesday that Mr Lukashenko had proposed a plan to Ms Merkel to resolve the crisis, under which the EU would take in 2,000 people while Minsk would send 5,000 back home.

There was no immediate response from the EU to the announcement of that plan.

However, shortly before it was announced, the European Commission said there could be no negotiation with Belarus over the plight of the migrants.

Earlier yesterday, hundreds of Iraqis checked in at a Minsk airport to go back to Iraq, the first repatriation flight of its kind since August.

Last night, Russian president Vladimir Putin called on Mr Lukashenko to start a dialogue with his opponents, who swiftly poured cold water on the idea unless Mr Lukashenko freed political prisoners first.

Mr Putin previously helped the Belarusian leader ride out mass street protests after a disputed election last year and has also backed Belarus in a stand-off with the EU over the thousands of migrants stranded on the EU’s eastern borders.

However, the two leaders have endured a prickly relationship over the years, despite Mr Lukashenko leaning on cheap Russian energy supplies and loans to prop up his rule.

“We know the situation in Belarus has calmed down, inside the country, but still there are problems, we’re perfectly aware of that,” Mr Putin said in a speech to foreign policy officials in Moscow.

“And of course we appeal for dialogue between the authorities and the opposition. But for its part, Russia will definitely continue its approach of strengthening ties and deepening the process of integration with Belarus.”

It was not immediately clear which opposition figures Mr Putin was encouraging Mr Lukashenko to speak to.

The Belarusian leader un- leashed a violent crackdown on street demonstrations after claiming victory in the disputed August 2020 election, jailing opposition figures or running them into exile.

“Reportedly, Putin had just called on Lukashenko to start the dialogue with the opposition,” said Franak Viacorka, a senior adviser to exiled opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who ran against Mr Lukashenko in the election.

“However, before this dialogue happens, we must make sure this dialogue doesn’t take place in prison.

“All political prisoners must be released as a pre-condition, and violence must end.”

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