Iraq to start repatriating citizens in Belarus Thursday: ministry

·2-min read
A man sits in a mosque by the repatriated body of Iraqi Kurdish migrant Gailan Diler, who died while trying to illegally cross into Poland via Belarus, during his funeral in Arbil, the capital of Iraq's northern autonomous Kurdish region (AFP/SAFIN HAMED)

The Iraqi government said it is organising a repatriation flight on Thursday for its citizens stuck on the Poland-Belarus border on a "voluntary" basis.

"Iraq will carry out a first flight for those who wish to return voluntarily on the 18th" of November from Belarus, foreign ministry spokesman Ahmed al-Sahaf told Iraqi television late Sunday.

He did not say how many people would take the Minsk-Baghdad flight, but said Iraq had recorded 571 of its citizens stuck on the border who have said they are ready to return "voluntarily".

Thousands of migrants from the Middle East, including many from northern Iraq's autonomous Kurdistan region, are camped out on the EU-Belarus border, creating a stand-off between the EU and US on one side and Belarus and its ally Russia on the other.

Western countries accuse Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko's government of engineering the crisis by encouraging migrants to come to Belarus and then taking them to the border.

On Monday, Lukashenko said Minsk itself was working to repatriate migrants massed on its border with Poland, apparently aiming to defuse the crisis ahead of an EU meeting over new sanctions on the ex-Soviet country.

Regular air links between Baghdad and Minsk have been suspended since August, while Belarusian diplomatic missions in Baghdad and Arbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, have been closed for more than a week.

The measures "have reduced the trips by Iraqis (to Belarus), but the problem is that some are now taking indirect flights, passing through Turkey, Qatar, the UAE and Egypt", Sahaf said.

The migrant crisis was at the centre of talks in Baghdad on Monday between EU Commissioner Margaritis Schinas and Iraq's Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhemi.

The premier, in a statement, stressed the need for "necessary measures to guarantee the security of Iraqi citizens throughout European territory" and against people traffickers.

On Friday, Turkey banned citizens of Syria, Iraq and Yemen from flying from its airports to Belarus, while private Syrian carrier Cham Wings Airlines on Saturday halted flights to Minsk.

Iraq's Kurdistan region presents itself as a haven of relative stability, but is often criticised for restricting freedom of expression.

The region has been ruled for decades by two parties, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the Kurdistan Democratic Party.

Several Iraqi Kurds have told AFP that a lack of economic prospects and insecurity were behind their desire to emigrate.

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