Belarus border camp cleared as Iraqis fly home from migrant stand-off
Hope for de-escalating the crisis, which has seen thousands camping in desperate conditions on the border for weeks, had been mounting in recent days, after German Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke with Belarus leader Alexander Lukashenko twice by phone.
The EU accuses Belarus of engineering the situation at the border in retaliation for sanctions on the ex-Soviet country. Minsk and its main ally Russia have rejected the charges and criticized the EU for not taking in the migrants seeking to cross over.
Around 2,000 people, mainly Iraqi Kurds, had been stuck in freezing temperatures at a camp in the woods near Brouzgui crossing point, hoping to pass into EU member state Poland.
But on Nov. 18 the Belarusian border force announced that the camp had been cleared, with its occupants relocated "on a voluntary basis" to a reception center nearby where they were given hot food and warm clothes.
Pictures of the camp looking abandoned were released and Polish authorities confirmed it had been emptied.
The relocation came the same day as the first repatriation flight from Belarus, carrying 431 people, landed in Iraq.
"The situation was very bad, we had to eat grass and leaves from the trees, and it was cold," one returning resident of Arbil told AFP.
In another sign of the grim conditions at the border, a Polish NGO said it had found a Syrian couple who had lost their one-year-old child while sleeping in the forest on the border for a month.
The flight came a day after the second of Merkel and Lukashenko's calls - the first time the Belarus leader has spoken with a Western leader since disputed presidential elections last year.
On Nov. 18, Lukashenko's spokeswoman Natalya Eismont said that there were about 7,000...
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