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Iraqi migrants caught in border tensions in Belarus fly home

MOSCOW (AP) — Hundreds of Iraqis flew home from Belarus on Thursday, abandoning their hopes of reaching the European Union following more than a week of tensions at the bloc’s eastern border, where thousands of migrants became stuck.

Many others moved into a heated warehouse to escape the bitter cold, emptying out a camp near the border with Poland, Belarusian state-run media reported. But the Polish Defense Ministry posted a video that showed a few hundred people and their tents remained at an official crossing.

It was not clear if the two countries were talking about two different sites on their shared border, but it was typical of the dueling narratives that have marked the crisis, in which both Belarus and Poland have sought to portray themselves in a positive light while depicting the other as unfeeling and irresponsible.

Tensions flared in recent days, with some 2,000 people, mostly from the Middle East, trapped in a dank forest as forces from the two countries faced off against each other. About half of them were women and children, according the U.N. refugee agency. At least 12 people have died in the area in recent weeks, including a 1-year-old whose death a Polish humanitarian organization reported Thursday.

Most are fleeing conflict or hopelessness at home and aim to reach Germany or other western European countries. But Poland didn’t want to let them in, and Belarus didn’t want them returning to the capital of Minsk or otherwise settling in the country.

The West has accused Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko of luring the migrants to the border to use them as pawns to destabilize the 27-nation bloc in retaliation for its sanctions on his authoritarian regime. Belarus denies orchestrating the crisis, which has seen migrants entering the country since summer and then trying to cross into Poland, Lithuania and Latvia.

Amid the tug-of-war, a total of 430 Iraqis have registered for flights home, according to Iraq’s consul in Russia, Majid al-Kilani. And 374 boarded one that left Thursday afternoon, Lukashenko’s spokeswoman Natalya Eismont said. The flight planned to make two stops — one in the city of Irbil and another in the Iraqi capital of Baghdad.

Perhaps some 7,000 migrants remain in Belarus, according to authorities. Many have moved to a warehouse near the border that authorities set up on Tuesday, offering mattresses, water, hot meals and medical assistance. Poland said a few hundred people along with a few dozen tents are still at the border crossing where skirmishes broke out recently.

Iraqi Kurdish migrants said the warehouse was filling up fast, with not enough food or places to sleep. A video acquired by the AP showed men, women and children at the facility, some sleeping on blankets or sleeping bags on the floor.

“At first, the situation was good, I mean on the first day. We were receiving three meals a day. But as more people came in from the forest, it has got more and more crowded. As a result, we got no dinner yesterday and no lunch today,” one young Iraqi Kurdish man said.

“As you can see, it is getting very crowded here, and it is not easy to find a place to sit or to sleep,” he added, speaking on condition of anonymity, fearing reprisals. “But it is much better than staying in the forest.”

The man said that everyone in the warehouse “has spent a lot of money to come here and they don’t want to go back.”

As the situation at the border spiraled over the past week, the war of words has drawn in the EU and Belarus ally Russia as well.

In the latest salvo, European Union Commissioner for Home Affairs, Ylva Johansson, accused Belarus of engaging in “an act of state-sponsored migrant smuggling” and said sanctions and stopping flights to Minsk that carry migrants were “our most effective tools in this struggle.”

Foreign ministers of the G-7 group of leading industrialized countries also condemned “the Belarus regime’s orchestration of irregular migration across its borders” in a statement Thursday.

Eismont said that the fact that hundreds of people were leaving Belarus shows that the government is holding up its part of the bargain. The rest are “categorically refusing to fly, but we will work on it,” she said.

Earlier this week, according to Eismont, Lukashenko proposed to German Chancellor Angela Merkel that the EU could open a “humanitarian corridor” to allow 2,000 migrants to head to Germany, while Belarusian authorities would work on convincing the other 5,000 to return to their home countries.

German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer said in Warsaw that suggestions that Germany would be ready to receive some 2,000 migrants is a “false information.”

Following Merkel’s call with Lukashenko on Tuesday, her office stressed the need for humanitarian assistance and for the migrants’ safe return home.

Poland has taken a tough stand against the migrants’ illegal entry, reinforcing the border with riot police and troops and making plans to build a tall steel barrier. The Polish approach has largely met with approval from other EU nations, who want to stop a surge of migration.

But Poland also has been criticized by human rights groups and others for pushing migrants back into Belarus and not allowing them to apply for asylum.

In recent days, a melee broke out on the border, with migrants throwing stones at Polish forces massed on their side of the razor-wire fence, injuring 12, and the troops responded with water cannons and tear gas. Warsaw accused Belarusian forces of instigating the conflict, while the government in Minsk denounced Poland’s “violent actions.”

Lukashenko has rejected accusations of engineering the crisis and said his government has deported about 5,000 illegal migrants from Belarus this fall.

In May, however, he had railed against the EU sanctions imposed on his country for its harsh crackdown on internal dissent, saying: “We were stopping migrants and drugs — now you will catch them and eat them yourself.”

On Thursday, Lukashenko’s ally Russian President Vladimir Putin pointed the finger at the rival EU.

“Western countries are using the migration crisis on the Belarusian-Polish border as a new reason for tension in the region that is close to us, for pressure on Minsk, and at the same time they forget their own obligations in the humanitarian sphere,” he said.

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Karmanau reported from Kyiv, Ukraine. Associated Press journalists Vanessa Gera in Warsaw, Sabina Niksic in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Frank Jordans in Berlin, Samuel Petrequin in Brussels, Zeina Karam in Beirut and Jim Heintz in Moscow contributed to this report.