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Turkey curbs flights to Belarus to ease migrant crisis

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November 12, 2021

By Robin Emmott and Tuvan Gumrukcu

BRUSSELS/ANKARA (Reuters) – Turkey banned Syrian, Yemeni and Iraqi citizens from flights to Minsk on Friday, potentially closing off one of the main routes that the EU says Belarus has used to fly in migrants by the thousand to engineer a humanitarian crisis on its frontier.

Thousands of migrants from the Middle East are sheltering in freezing conditions in the woods on the border between Belarus and the EU states Poland and Lithuania, which are refusing to let them cross. Some have already died and there are fears for the safety of the rest as bitter winter conditions settle in.

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The EU accuses Belarus of creating the crisis as part of a “hybrid attack” on the bloc – distributing Belarusian visas in the Middle East, flying in the migrants and pushing them to cross the border illegally. Brussels may impose new sanctions on Belarus and airlines it blames for ferrying the migrants, as soon as Monday.

EU officials welcomed Friday’s announcement by Turkey’s Civil Aviation General Directorate that Syrians, Yemenis and Iraqis would not be permitted to buy tickets to Belarus or board flights there from Turkish territory.

Turkey has denied playing a direct role by allowing its territory to be used to ferry in migrants. But Minsk airport’s website listed six commercial flights arriving from Istanbul on Friday, the most from any city outside the former Soviet Union.

European officials have repeatedly said their best hope of resolving the crisis is to stop would-be migrants in the Middle East from boarding flights for Belarus at the source, and that diplomats were negotiating in the region to achieve this.

“These contacts are already showing fruit,” a European Commission spokesperson said.

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The EU spokesperson said Iraqi Airways had also agreed to halt flights to Belarus. A spokesperson for the airline said all airlines in Iraq had already suspended flights to Belarus several months ago at the request of the Iraqi government.

Belarus denies that it has fomented the crisis, but has also said it cannot help resolve it unless Europe lifts existing sanctions. The EU imposed several rounds of measures in response to President Alexander Lukashenko’s violent crackdown on mass street protests against his rule in 2020.

Lukashenko, a close ally of Russia, threatened this week to cut off Russian gas supplies delivered to Europe through Belarusian territory. On Friday, the Kremlin appeared to distance itself from that threat, saying it was not consulted in advance of Lukashenko’s remarks and it would fulfil its gas delivery contracts.

But Moscow shows no sign of leaning on Lukashenko to resolve the border crisis, and has made a number of demonstrations of its military support for him in recent days. Russian and Belarusian paratroopers held joint drills near the border on Friday, and the Russian air force has sent planes this week to patrol the frontier.

“From our point of view, the Russian president has the possibility to influence the situation and we expect him to take appropriate steps,” a German government spokesperson said.

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At the border, Polish authorities said they had foiled 223 attempts to cross the border illegally from Belarus overnight, including two large groups. They estimate the number of migrants trapped along the border at 3,000-4,000.

Neighbouring Lithuania reported 110 crossing attempts overnight and said it would be finishing a 100-km razor wire barrier along the border by Dec. 10, three weeks ahead of schedule.

FREEZING CONDITIONS

The EU has so far fully backed Poland and Lithuania in taking a hard line on banning illegal crossings from Belarus, for fear that allowing even a small number to enter would encourage huge numbers to follow them.

But charities and advocates say the freezing conditions have created a humanitarian emergency, and that European states have an obligation to allow access to provide food and shelter. The media has also been kept away, which critics say is concealing the extent of the crisis.

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“Access for independent observers and the media is essential,” said Iwo Los, from Grupa Granica (Border Group), a Polish organisation. “These people…have to receive humanitarian aid, medical aid and this aid must be provided to them on both sides of the border.”

The Baltic nations bordering Belarus have warned that the crisis could escalate into a military confrontation. The Presidents of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia will meet on Monday in Vilnius to discuss the crisis and be joined by video link by Poland’s president Andrzej Duda, the Lithuanian president’s office said on Friday.

Interior ministers of the four countries are also due to call on international organizations to help avert a humanitarian crisis by engaging directly with Minsk.

“We call upon you to engage with Belarusian authorities and other relevant stakeholders in order to organize humanitarian and medical assistance for the people whose arrival to their territory they have organised themselves,” they will say according to a copy of the letter seen by Reuters.

(Reporting Robin Emmott and Marine Strauss in Brussels, Pawel Florkiewicz and Anna Wlodarczak-Semczuk in Warsaw, Tuvan Gumrukcu in Ankara, Andrius Sytas in Kapciamietsis, Lithuania, Dmitry Antonov and Andrew Osborn in Moscow, Ahmed Rasheed in Baghdad; Writing by Jan Lopatka and Tomasz Janowski; Editing by 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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