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.
Meanwhile, state-run Belarusian media reported that there were no more migrants left in the makeshift camps near the Polish frontier after authorities opened a heated warehouse for them to shelter from the cold in. This could not immediately be verified.
Since Nov. 8, some 2,000 people, mostly from the Middle East, have been stranded at the border crossing, trapped in a dank forest as forces from the two countries faced off against each other. 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 plans to make two stops — one in the city of Erbil and another in the Iraqi capital of Baghdad.
Other people have moved to a nearby warehouse, which Belarusian authorities set up on Tuesday, offering mattresses, water, hot meals and medical assistance.
That left no one at the border camps, state-run agency Belta reported Thursday.
But in all, Eismont, Lukashenko's spokeswoman, said as many as 7,000 migrants in total remain in the country.
In the latest salvo in the war of words, 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.
In response to a request for comment, Merkel's office referred to its Tuesday statement on the call between her and Lukashenko, in which she 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."