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Belarus clears migrant camp, eases border deadlock with Poland


BRUZGI, Belarus – Belarusian authorities on Thursday emptied the camps at the main border crossing to Poland, where thousands of migrants were living in freezing and increasingly sordid conditions, for the time being removing a major flashpoint that has exacerbated tensions across Europe.

The plot of land dubbed “the jungle” by migrants – just days ago, the scene of violent clashes between asylum seekers trying to cut through the razor’s edge and Polish security forces blowing them up with water cannons – quickly became a wasteland of garbage, abandoned tents and smoldering fires.

The clean-up of the camps alleviated the immediate suffering of the migrants who lived in the open air in miserable conditions, as they were transferred by Belarusian authorities to a giant warehouse. And he lobbied a border that the European Union was monitoring with growing concern, fearing that it would be crossed by a new wave of migrants, even as Western leaders – and Poland – are skeptical of the end of it. the volatile impasse. .

The situation has also left Belarusian President Alexander G. Lukashenko with a troubling dilemma: what to do with all the people he has attracted to Belarus but who, prevented from entering Europe, quickly become a heavy burden on his own. country ?

Zana Ahmed, a 26-year-old Iraqi Kurd who spent around $ 5,000 to get to the border with Poland, a few meters from his entry into the European Union, has vowed to stay in Belarus “until I die.” Unless he manages to enter Europe. .

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has taken the initiative to try to find a diplomatic solution to the crisis, speaking with Lukashenko, but has given no indication that she will repeat the offer of welcome she made to migrants in 2015, when more than one million people flocked to Germany.

On Thursday, escorted by Belarusian guards clad in black hoods and armed with Kalashnikov rifles, a dragging procession of migrants moved away from the border, abandoning their border encampments like a routed army. Hundreds more had been evacuated from the site and moved to the warehouse on Wednesday.

By nightfall, what had once been a sprawling makeshift settlement with thousands of people desperate to enter the European Union, had turned into a strangely silent desert. Scattered on the ground were the remnants of migrants’ efforts in recent weeks to sneak or break into Poland – rubber boots, pruning shears, a saw, a crowbar and survival tools in the frigid forests that straddle the border.

Although they had left the immediate vicinity of the border to take shelter from the biting cold in the warehouse, many migrants remained hopeful of still being able to arrive in Europe and, failing that, of settling in Belarus rather than being forced to return home, which for many is Iraq.

Yuri Karayev, an aide to Lukashenko representing the border region surrounding Grodno, declined to answer questions about what awaits the migrants now that they have relinquished their hold on the wooded border patch of land they have occupied for many years. weeks – but not their desire to go to Europe.

Poland, supported by other members of the European Union, shows no sign of slacking off in its tough stance against migrants trying to enter the country. The Polish Prime Minister told a German newspaper that “by defending our border, we are defending the whole of Europe”.

Under the gray November skies, phalanxes of Polish soldiers remained in formation Thursday around the Bruzgi border post, still flanked by water cannons – used Tuesday to repel a surge of migrants to Poland from Belarus. The government in Warsaw had repeatedly portrayed the migrants as an invading horde, but now they had suddenly disappeared, at least from sight.

Polish officials said on Thursday they recorded 501 border crossing attempts from Belarus in the past 24 hours and, reiterating a daily Warsaw claim, accused Belarusian security officials of leading groups of migrants to try to cross the border. The migrants contradict their story if their almost unsuccessful forays into Poland were aided by Belarus.

Poland, unlike Belarus, has banned all journalists and aid workers from approaching the border, making it impossible to assess the veracity of its often belligerent allegations.

On a dirt road on the Belarusian side of the border a few hundred meters from the Bruzgi crossing, a red and white Polish flag fluttered near an abandoned migrant shelter made of pine branches. A campfire was still smoldering outside the shelter, where freshly cut logs had been stacked as if preparing for a long siege.

The withdrawal of migrants from what the European bloc has described as the front line of a “hybrid war” unleashed by Mr Lukashenko is likely to reduce tensions at the border, although it is not known for how long.

The Group of 7 Major Industrial Powers blasted the Belarusian leader in a statement Thursday, accusing him of “orchestrating irregular migration across its borders.”

For now, most of the migrants housed in the warehouse – which is located less than a kilometer from the Bruzgi border post – say they have no plans to return home.

An Iraqi repatriation flight left from Minsk, the Belarusian capital, on Thursday, carrying several hundred migrants who had given up on entering the European bloc. The plane, a Boeing 747 operated by Iraqi Airways, the national airline, landed Thursday evening in Erbil, in the northern Iraqi Kurdistan region, and then continued on to Baghdad.

However, many Iraqis still crammed into the warehouse say they do not plan to resume future flights to Iraq.

“I will stay here for months or years and if they try to deport me to Iraq, I will go back to the jungle,” vowed Suleiman Sabah, an Iraqi Kurd who arrived at the warehouse with bags. in plastic containing dirty clothes and clean blankets supplied by Belarusian air workers.

Dalia Ahmed, another Iraqi Kurd, said she had been desperate to get out of the border camp since Tuesday, when her two young sons were hit by blasts of icy water from Polish water cannons and convulsively shivered the whole time. night.

Seizing the small straws of hope provided by the wild rumors circulating among migrants of an impending airlift to Germany and of a possible Vatican intervention to persuade devout Catholic Poland to give in, she said: “Maybe to be that the Pope will help us get to Europe. “

Mr Sabah said he agreed to leave the border encampment on Thursday after hearing unfounded rumors that Germany would welcome people from the warehouse soon, believing that getting out of the encampment was the best way to get a ticket. .

Belarusian security officials, he said, did not use force to persuade people to leave the border, but made it clear that “if you don’t go alone you will be forced to go. “.

For Masoud Mahdi, 35, who had spent 11 days in “the jungle” with his pregnant wife and young daughter, it was enough to take shelter from the cold. “We lived worse than dogs,” he said as he walked to the warehouse.

“Last night was impossible,” he added. “It was raining and freezing and we had to leave. “

Yet, said Mahdi, he did not want to return to Iraqi Kurdistan. He wanted to go to Germany. “If I am returned to Iraq, I will kill myself,” he said.

Marc Santora and Anatol Magdziarz contribution to Warsaw reporting; and Jane arraf from Baghdad and Sangar Khaleelfrom Erbil, Iraq.

nytimes Gt

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