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Belarus proposes plan to ease border crisis; group of Iraqis flown home

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November 18, 2021

By Kacper Pempel and Charlotte Bruneau

BRUZGI, Belarus (Reuters) -Belarus said on Thursday it had proposed a plan to solve the migrant crisis at its borders, which would see the European Union take on 2,000 migrants while Minsk would send another 5,000 back home.

It was unclear if the plan could be acceptable to the EU, especially as it came with caveats and was announced just shortly after the European Commission said there could be no negotiation with Belarus over the plight of the migrants.

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But in a potential first concrete sign of an easing of the crisis, hundreds of Iraqis checked in at a Minsk airport for a flight back to Iraq earlier on Thursday, the first such flight in months.

European countries accuse Belarus of flying in thousands of migrants from the Middle East and pushing them to attempt to cross the frontier illegally. Belarus denies fomenting the crisis.

Thousands of migrants have been trapped in freezing woods at the border. In a cruel sign of the harsh conditions there, a couple, both injured, told the Polish Centre for International Aid, an NGO, on Thursday that their one-year-old child had died in the forest. Previously it had been estimated that at least eight people had died at the border in recent months.

An African migrant whose identity was unknown was buried on Thursday at a Muslim cemetery in Bohoniki, in north-east Poland, near Belarus, the second migrant funeral there this week.

“It is hard,” said Maciej Szczesnowicz, a leader of the local Tatar Muslim community. “It pains me that people went to another country… and met such a fate here in Poland.”

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HUMANITARIAN CORRIDOR?

A Reuters reporter on the Belarusian side of the frontier saw a group of 200-300 people, mainly men but also families with young children, wrapped in blankets and huddled around makeshift fires, trying to keep warm near the Kuznica-Bruzgi border point.

Some had set up a few tents, and a man could be seen feeding a baby. They were surrounded by Belarusian soldiers wearing masks, helmets and vests, and a water cannon could be seen on the Polish side of the border.

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko discussed his proposal with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in a phone call on Wednesday, their second call this week, Lukashenko’s spokeswoman was quoted as saying by Belta news agency. Merkel had agreed to discuss it with the EU, the spokeswoman, Natalia Eismont, said.

“The European Union creates a humanitarian corridor for the 2,000 refugees who are in the camp. We undertake to facilitate (as far as possible and if they wish) the remaining 5,000 to return to their homeland.”

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There was no immediate reaction from EU countries, but the bloc’s executive Commission said earlier in the day that there could be no negotiation with Belarus, describing Merkel’s phone calls with Lukashenko as just “bilateral contacts”.

Eismont said migrants would only go back to their country if they want to: “The only condition is their willingness. We won’t force anyone back to Iraq, Syria or other countries.”

Large numbers of Iraqis are among those who have camped at Belarus’s borders, seeking entry and a better life in the prosperous 27-nation EU. Some 430, mostly Iraqi Kurds, checked in for a flight back to Iraq from Minsk on Thursday, the Iraqi foreign ministry said.

There had been no other such flights since about 1,000 Iraqis were evacuated from Minsk in August, a spokesperson for Iraqi Airways, Hussein Jalil, told Reuters.

“I would not go back (to Iraq) if it wasn’t for my wife,” a 30-year-old Iraqi Kurd, who declined to give his name, told Reuters on the eve of the evacuation flight. “She does not want to go back with me to the border, because she saw too many horrors over there.” The couple attempted to cross at least eight times from Belarus to Lithuania and Poland.

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Meanwhile, Belarusian state airline Belavia has stopped allowing citizens from Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Syria and Yemen to board flights from Uzbekistan’s capital Tashkent to Minsk, Belta reported.

The EU has launched a diplomatic effort to ease the crisis by putting pressure on regional countries not to allow migrants to board flights for Belarus.

TRYING TO CROSS THE BORDER

While some migrants returned to Iraq, others made fresh attempts to cross the heavily-guarded border.

Poland said the number of attempts to cross its border from Belarus had risen on Wednesday, with 501 individual attempts, including around 200 by people detained after breaking through when a big group of around 500 made a push across.

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In another incident, a few dozen people threw stones, injuring three soldiers and a police officer.

Belarus said earlier this week it was moving some of the migrants away from the border. Belarus TV showed footage of hundreds of migrants, including families, many sitting on mattresses, who had been moved to a large warehouse.

Foreign ministers from the G7 group of wealthy economies said Belarus was orchestrating the crisis.

“These callous acts are putting people’s lives at risk,” said the statement, issued on Thursday by G7 chair Britain. “We call on the regime to cease immediately its aggressive and exploitative campaign in order to prevent further deaths and suffering.”

(Reporting by Kacper Pempel in Belarus, Pawel Florkiewicz, Alan Charlish, Anna Koper in Poland, Charlotte Bruneau in Iraq, Andrius Sytas in Lithuania, Matthias Williams in Ukraine, Vladimir Soldatkin and Tom Balmfort in Moscow; Writing by Ingrid Melander; Editing by Timothy Heritage and Peter Graff)

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Russian court remands mine director, inspectors in custody after deadly accident

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November 27, 2021

MOSCOW (Reuters) – A court in Siberia on Saturday remanded five people in custody for two months to face charges related to a mining accident that killed more than 50 people this week.

Three managers of the Listvyazhnaya mine, including its director, were ordered to remain in custody until late January for flouting industrial safety standards, a spokesperson for the regional prosecutor’s office said.

The court also ordered two safety inspectors, who had issued a certificate for the mine this month but had not actually checked the facility, to remain in custody until late January.

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The accident, which regional authorities say was likely caused by a methane explosion, claimed the lives of 51 people, including five rescuers who were sent to bring out dozens of men stuck deep underground.

The health ministry said on Saturday that 60 people were being treated in hospital for injuries sustained at the mine, TASS news agency reported.

The accident at the mine, located some 3,500 km (2,200 miles) east of Moscow in the Kemerovo region, was Russia’s worst since 2010 when explosions killed 91 people at the Raspadskaya mine in the same region.

(Reporting by Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber; Editing by Christina Fincher)

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Russia spy chief says Ukraine invasion plan ‘malicious’ U.S. propaganda

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November 27, 2021

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia has no plans to invade Ukraine and suggestions to the contrary are malicious U.S. propaganda, Moscow’s foreign intelligence chief said on Saturday.

U.S., NATO and Ukrainian officials have raised the alarm in recent weeks over what they say are unusual Russian troop movements near the border with Ukraine, suggesting that Moscow may be poised to launch an attack.

Russia has repeatedly said it is free to move its troops on its own territory and that such movements should not be a cause for concern.

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“I need to reassure everyone. Nothing like this is going to happen,” Sergei Naryshkin, head of Russia’s foreign intelligence agency, said in an interview broadcast on state television, referring to comments on Russia’s alleged invasion plans.

“Everything that is happening around this topic right now is of course malicious propaganda by the U.S. State Department.”

Naryshkin spoke a day after the State Department’s top U.S. diplomat for European affairs said all options were on the table in how to respond to Russia’s troop buildup near Ukraine’s border and that NATO would decide on the next move after consultations next week.

While U.S. officials have voiced concerns about a possible Russian attack on Ukraine, Moscow has accused Washington, Kyiv and NATO of provocative and irresponsible behaviour near its borders.

(Reporting by Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber; Editing by Nick Macfie)

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Spanish police march in Madrid to protest against ‘Gag Law’ reform

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November 27, 2021

By Miguel Gutierrez and Marco Trujillo

MADRID (Reuters) – Thousands of Spanish police officers marched through Madrid on Saturday to protest against a proposed reform of a security law which they say will hamper their ability to do their work.

Politicians from Spain’s three main conservative parties joined police officers in the protest against proposed changes to the 2015 Citizens Security Law, which critics say violates the right to protest and limits free expression.

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Dubbed the “Gag Law” by those who oppose it, the legislation allows authorities to fine media organisations for distributing unauthorised images of police, strictly limits demonstrations and imposes heavy fines for offenders.

Spain’s leftist government has proposed reforms including no longer classifying the taking of photographs or making of recordings of police at demonstrations as a serious offence.

Under the changes, police will also have to use less harmful materials at protests after a number of people were seriously injured by rubber bullets fired by officers.

The time that suspects who are arrested at protests can be held in custody will be cut from six hours to two and fines will be proportional to how much offenders earn.

“They should either leave the current law as it is or make it better for the police and for the citizens,” Civil Guard officer Vanessa Gonzalez told Reuters.

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Ivan Espinosa de los Monteros, of the far-right Vox party, said: “There is strong opposition against (the reform) of this law. It is against our police and we will not let it happen.”

However, Isa Serra, spokeswoman for the far-left Unidas Podemos party, said at a rally in Cantabria in northern Spain that the law had done a “lot of damage to Spanish democracy”.

Organisers said 150,000 people took part in the Madrid demonstration but the government put the figure at 20,000.

(Reporting by Graham Keeley, Miguel Gutierrez and Marco Trujillo; Editing by Alexander Smith)

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