Flight ban imposed as pressure builds on Belarus over migrants

Flight ban imposed as pressure builds on Belarus over migrants

Warsaw: Turkey on Friday barred people from several Middle Eastern countries from flying to Belarus, as pressure mounts on Minsk to end a migrant crisis on its border with EU member Poland.

The Turkish Civil Aviation Authority said citizens of Iraq, Syria and Yemen would not be allowed on flights from Turkey to Belarus because of "the problem of illegal border crossings between the European Union and Belarus".

It said citizens of these countries would be prevented from buying tickets or boarding flights to Belarus until further notice.

Belarusian state airline Belavia said it was complying with the order.

It was the first move to start preventing migrants from entering Belarus, which is being accused of bringing them into the country to send over the border into Poland in revenge for Western sanctions.

Hundreds of migrants, mainly Kurds, have been stuck for days on the Belarusian-Polish border in near-freezing temperatures, with aid groups warning of a looming humanitarian catastrophe, AFP reported.

Poland is refusing to allow the migrants to cross, has declared a state of emergency in the area and has deployed thousands of troops along the border.

Amid reports this week of more flights from Turkey and the Middle East carrying migrants to Minsk, Western countries are demanding Belarusian strongman Alexander Lukashenko and his main ally Russia take steps to end the crisis.

After an emergency meeting at the UN Security Council on Thursday, the US and European delegations condemned "the orchestrated instrumentalisation of human beings whose lives and well-being have been put in danger for political purposes by Belarus".

They accused Minsk of trying to destabilise EU countries to divert attention "from its own increasing human rights violations".

Minsk and Moscow have accused EU countries of failing to live up to international standards by blocking the migrants, who they say are seeking shelter after Western military "adventures" in the Middle East.

Russia has rejected claims it is involved and President Vladimir Putin told Europe on Thursday that it should "restore contacts" with Minsk if it wants to resolve the crisis.

The EU is instead considering new sanctions on Lukashenko, who is already isolated and under sanctions for a severe crackdown on opponents after a disputed presidential election last year.

The Belarusian leader, who has ruled his ex-Soviet country for nearly 30 years, remained defiant, warning on Thursday that any new sanctions would be met with a response.

He suggested Minsk could cut off the transit of Russian natural gas through Belarus to Europe, which relies on Russia for a third of its gas supplies.

The Kremlin dismissed the threat on Friday, saying Lukashenko did not coordinate his statement with Moscow.

"The reliability of Russia as a supplier under current and future contracts is beyond question," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters.

Poland has deployed 15,000 troops along the border, put up a fence topped with barbed wire and approved construction of a wall on the frontier with Belarus.

Migrants have been trying to cross the border for months but the crisis came to a head when hundreds made a concerted effort on Monday and were pushed back by Polish border guards.

They set up a camp on the border where some 2,000 people are sheltering in tents and burning wood from local forests to keep warm, blocked by Polish guards behind razor-wire.

At least 10 migrants have died on the border in recent months, seven of them on the Polish side, according to Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza.

Aid teams from the United Nations and Red Cross visited the camp on Thursday and delivered basic supplies, but they warned that the migrants are in no condition to stay in the area for long.

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