Belarus says working to return migrants as EU readies sanctions

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Belarus is working to repatriate migrants that have amassed on its border with Poland, President Alexander Lukashenko said on Monday, apparently aiming to defuse the crisis ahead of an EU meeting over new sanctions on the ex-Soviet country.

Thousands of migrants from the Middle East have been trying to cross from Belarus into EU member Poland in recent months, and tensions soared last week as coordinated efforts to cross were rebuffed by Polish border guards.

The EU accuses Belarus of sending the migrants to the border as retribution for earlier sanctions.

Lukashenko's apparent olive branch came as foreign ministers of the 27-nation bloc were meeting on Monday to adopt new penalties over the crisis.

He said Belarus did not want the border situation to escalate into a "conflict" and that it was working to send home the several thousand migrants camping on its border with Poland.

"Active work is underway in this area, to convince people -- please, return home. But nobody wants to go back," Lukashenko said, as quoted by state news agency Belta

The 67-year-old also suggested that Belarus could take up an offer by officials in Munich to ferry the migrants via its state-run airline Belavia to Germany if Poland does not provide a "humanitarian corridor".

"We will send them to Munich by our own planes, if necessary," Lukashenko said.

- EU sanctions looming -

At the EU meeting on Monday, Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis said he had "no reason" to believe Lukashenko.

"Let's just hope that, at this point, he's saying something true," he said.

Belarus has faced waves of EU sanctions in response to a crackdown on the opposition after last year's presidential elections and Lukashenko's decision to ground a Ryanair flight earlier this year over Belarus to detain an activist.

Lukashenko denies accusations that he has organised the migrants on the border, saying the situation was proving "expensive" for his country.

"We have never done this and do not intend to do this," he said.

And he repeated warnings that Belarus would defend itself if new sanctions are imposed.

Germany's Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, said on Monday that Belarus still faces tougher sanctions. The penalties are expected to target around 30 Belarusian officials, the state airline and travel agencies.

But Lukashenko has weathered Belarus's growing isolation with the help of his main political and financial backer Moscow.

Russian President Vladimir Putin over the weekend denied claims Moscow was helping to orchestrate the crisis, blaming Western policies in the Middle East.

On Monday, the Kremlin said it was "completely wrong" to place "all the blame" for the crisis on the Belarusian leader.

"Lukashenko is not creating the situation that is taking place at the border," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters.

- Repatriation flight -

Belarus says there are about 2,000 people in the migrant camp, including pregnant women and children, while Poland says there are between 3,000 and 4,000 migrants on the border.

Belarusian authorities have delivered aid including tents and heaters -- a move that could make the camp a semi-permanent presence on the EU's eastern border.

Poland has refused to allow the migrants in and has accused Belarus of preventing them from leaving.

Aid agencies say at least 10 migrants have died so far and have warned of a humanitarian crisis unfolding as temperatures drop below freezing.

Local police in Poland's Podlasie region on Monday said four Europeans had been detained during road checks for "aiding illegal border crossings".

Television footage on Monday showed hundreds of migrants moving towards a border crossing post. On Sunday, Warsaw detained 50 migrants who crossed into Poland.

There have been several signs in recent days, though, that the crisis could relent.

Belavia has announced that nationals from a host of Middle Eastern countries were banned from incoming flights from Turkey and the United Arab Emirates at their request.

And on Monday, the Iraqi government said it was organising a repatriation flight this Thursday for its citizens stuck on the Poland-Belarus border on a "voluntary" basis.

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