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Poland Says Fewer Migrants At Belarusian Border; Lukashenka Admits Aiding Them

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Migrants gather around a fire in a camp in the Hrodno region of Belarus on November 18.

Polish authorities say illegal attempts by migrants to cross into the country from Belarus continue even after Minsk cleared hundreds from camps in the area.

A spokeswoman for Poland's Border Guard said on November 19 that around 50 migrants made it through a fence and into Poland overnight despite signals of a slight easing of a weekslong crisis on the European Union's eastern border.

But the dispute appears far from resolved, with Poland accusing Belarus of trucking hundreds of migrants back to the border and again pushing them to attempt to cross illegally, which authoritarian ruler Alyaksandr Lukashenka admitted was "absolutely possible."

"Maybe someone helped them. I won't even look into this," Lukashenka told the BBC on November 19 in an interview at his presidential palace in Minsk.

"I think that's absolutely possible. We're Slavs. We have hearts. Our troops know the migrants are going to Germany," he added.

The EU accuses 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.

The August 2020 vote saw the strongman claim victory despite accusations from the opposition and the West that the vote was rigged.

Lukashenka's security forces have been accused of widespread violence against demonstrators during the months of protests following his claim of victory in August 2020. Thousands were detained and opposition candidate Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya was forced to flee the country after claiming victory.

Brussels has accused Minsk of an "inhuman, gangster-style approach" to the crisis at the border, where thousands of people, including women and children had been camped for days in freezing temperatures under the open sky in conditions that have caused several deaths.

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In the BBC interview, Lukashenka, who has been in power since 1994, denied inviting the thousands of mostly Middle Eastern migrants to Belarus in order to provoke a border crisis.

"I told them I'm not going to detain migrants on the border, hold them at the border, and if they keep coming from now on I still won't stop them, because they're not coming to my country, they're going to yours," he told the BBC.

"That's what I meant. But I didn't invite them here. And to be honest, I don't want them to go through Belarus," he added.

Tsikhanouskaya's team criticized the BBC for conducting the interview with Lukashenka, which it said amounted to "giving the floor to a dictator."

In Warsaw, Polish Defense Minister Mariusz Blaszczak told private broadcaster Polsat on November 19 that there were still attempts to cross the border after the camps were cleared the previous day, but in smaller groups than before, when hundreds would sometimes try to push through the fence at once.

Belarusian state-run media reported that around 2,000 migrants were moved into a heated logistics warehouse, where hundreds of adults and children could be seen resting on mattresses on the floor.

Some 430 Iraqi migrants on November 18 boarded an Iraqi Airways aircraft in Minsk for the journey back home, with the Iraqi Foreign Ministry saying it planned further evacuations.

In the first repatriation flight since the crisis began, the plane stopped first in Irbil, the capital of Iraq's autonomous northern Kurdish region, before flying on to Baghdad.

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However, a flight from the Belarusian capital to Baghdad planned for November 19 had disappeared from the schedule of the Minsk airport.

The European Commission and Germany rejected a proposal by Minsk, under which EU countries would take in 2,000 migrants now in Belarus, and 5,000 others would be sent back home. The United States accused Minsk of using the migrants as "pawns in its efforts to be disruptive."

With reporting by Reuters, AFP, BBC, and RFE/RL's Belarus Service
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