Belarus cleared some camps where migrants had gathered in freezing temperatures along the border with Poland, while hundreds of migrants were flown back to Iraq in a potential sign that a weeks-long crisis could begin to ease.
Around 2,000 migrants were moved into a crowded heated warehouse near the border, Belarusian state-run media reported on November 18.
But the Polish Defense Ministry posted video showing a few hundred people and their tents still near an official crossing point that has been the scene of clashes between Polish security forces and migrants in recent days.
It was not clear if the two countries were talking about two different sites on their border, or whether Belarus would try to transfer the migrants to other sections of the Polish frontier.
Earlier, Polish soldiers detained about 100 migrants that officials said were aided by Belarusian security forces to illegally cross the border. The Defense Ministry in Warsaw said Belarusian forces carried out reconnaissance and then allegedly damaged a border fence.
The EU accuses Belarusian strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka of flying in migrants and funneling them to the borders of member states Poland, Latvia, and Lithuania to retaliate for sanctions the bloc imposed over a sweeping crackdown since last year’s disputed presidential election.
WATCH: With temperatures dropping, some migrants who had camped out by the border have now moved to a temporary shelter in Belarus where they await potential deportation.
Meanwhile, in the first repatriation flight since the crisis began, some 430 Iraqi migrants boarded an Iraqi Airways aircraft in Minsk for the journey back home, according to the Iraqi Foreign Ministry. The plane stopped first in Irbil, the capital of Iraq's autonomous northern Kurdish region, before flying on to Baghdad.
“Belarus was treating us very badly and the Polish authorities did not allow us to cross the border,” the Kurdistan 24 news site quoted one repatriated women as saying at Irbil airport.
Kurdish leader Masrour Barzani said his government would take efforts to ensure citizens are not caught in a similar situation again.
“I'm relieved by the safe return of our citizens caught up in the border between Poland and Belarus,” he said. “We will continue working with the federal government and partners to bring home all those who wish to return.”
The camp clearances and repatriation flight came during a week of intensified diplomacy, with the European Union and United States simultaneously threatening fresh sanctions on Minsk for “weaponizing” migration.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke with Lukashenka on November 17 about the EU providing humanitarian aid to the migrants and helping them return home, in the second such call in less than a week.
Until Merkel’s calls with Lukashenka, the EU had refused to recognize Lukashenka as the legitimate leader of Belarus.
A spokeswoman for Lukashenka, Natallya Eismont, said on November 18 that about 7,000 migrants were currently in the country, 2,000 of whom were in areas near the border. Eismont said Belarus wants the EU to open a “humanitarian corridor” to allow 2,000 migrants to head to Germany, while Belarusian authorities try to get the other 5,000 to return home.
However, the European Commission and Germany denied that EU countries will take in 2,000 migrants trapped in Belarus.
"If we took in refugees, if we bowed to the pressure and said 'we are taking refugees into European countries,' then this would mean implementing the very basis of this perfidious strategy," German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer said in Warsaw.
Polish Foreign Minister Mateusz Morawiecki cautioned against holding direct talks with Lukashenka's government, saying that doing so would "legitimize" his presidency despite the bloc's rejection of the results of the August 2020 Belarusian presidential election.
Polish President Andrzej Duda said a day earlier that Poland must be included in any decisions regarding the crisis.
"Poland will not recognize any deals agreed without us," Duda said.