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EU agrees new sanctions on Belarus, airlines over border crisis

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November 15, 2021

By Sabine Siebold, Andrius Sytas and Gabriela Baczynska

BRUSSELS/WARSAW/MOSCOW (Reuters) – The European Union agreed on Monday to step up sanctions against Belarus, which denounced as “absurd” Western accusations that it was driving a migrant crisis that has left up to 4,000 people stranded in freezing forests on its border with Poland.

EU foreign ministers want to increase pressure on Belarus, which they say is pushing migrants towards the bloc in revenge for earlier sanctions over a crackdown on protests last year against veteran leader Alexander Lukashenko’s contested re-election.

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Migrants – mostly from Iraq and Afghanistan – began appearing on Belarus’ land borders with the EU this year, trying to cross into member states Lithuania, Latvia and Poland via routes not used before.

“This inhumane system of using refugees as tools to exert pressure on the European Union … has got worse over the last days,” said Germany’s foreign minister Heiko Maas.

“We will toughen sanctions on individuals who are involved in this human trafficking, and we will have to talk about the fact that severe economic sanctions are inevitable.”

Monday’s unanimous political agreement among EU countries must be worked out in detail before specific new sanctions come into force.

Stranded on the Belarusian side of the border and increasingly desperate, migrants have tried to force makeshift fences in several places in recent days. Poland has reported 5,100 irregular attempts to cross the border so far in November.

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Latvia said on Monday it had deployed 3,000 troops for a previously unannounced military exercise near the border. It, Lithuania and Poland make up the eastern flank of the EU and NATO, the paramount Western military alliance.

The top EU diplomat, Josep Borrell, said the new package of sanctions would target airlines and travel agencies involved in “this illegal push of migrants”.

Middle East travel agencies working together with operators in Belarus provided tourist visas to thousands of people in recent months, a Reuters investigation revealed.

EU executive said it was looking into whether other airlines should face sanctions after the bloc banned Belarus’ state-owned carrier Belavia from its skies and airports. Germany’s Maas stressed Turkish Airlines had stayed away.

The Belarusian foreign ministry dismissed as “absurd” accusations that Minsk had engineered the migrant crisis, according to Russian state news agency RIA.

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Lukashenko said Belarus was trying to convince migrants to go home. “But nobody wants to go back,” he said, according to Belarus’ state news agency Belta. Minsk would retaliate against any new EU sanctions, he was quoted as saying.

The EU has been stepping up sanctions on Belarus for months. Curbs already in place include blacklisting of Lukashenko, his son and 165 other Belarusian officials, as well as restrictions on trade in potash, an important export.

STRANDED MIGRANTS

The EU called on Lukashenko’s most powerful ally, Russian President Vladimir Putin, to put pressure on Minsk to stop risking people’s lives in a geopolitical tug-of-war.

“It is obvious what Lukashenko’s regime and its allies want – to test unity of the Western world,” said Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda.

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Vilnius says some migrants fly to Belarus via Moscow and wants the EU to “make the Minsk airport a no-fly-zone,” according to Lithuanian foreign minister.

The Kremlin said it was ready to mediate between Belarus and the EU, that Putin would talk to Lukashenko, and that Moscow had no plans to reroute gas flows away from Belarus despite Minsk threatening to cut transit to Europe through the Yamal pipeline.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov also dismissed as “wrong” a U.S. State Department statement that the Belarus border crisis was meant to distract attention from increased Russian military activity close to Ukraine.

Peskov said Russia was already acting as an intermediary while the EU’s chief executive said coming days would be decisive.

At least eight people have died along the 200 kilometre long land border between Poland and Belarus, including from cold and exhaustion. The sparsely populated area of lakes, swamps and forests is becoming even more hostile to people trying to keep warm around bonfires through the cold November nights.

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Polish border guards said on Monday several hundred people had gathered on the Belarusian side of a closed border crossing point in Kuznica and might try to get into Poland.

Maas and Borrell urged Warsaw to allow humanitarian aid on the frontier, where Poland has deployed some 20,000 police, border guards and soldiers.

Poland’s nationalist government also came under criticism from rights activists for seeking to cut off all the migrants without giving individuals a chance to claim asylum.

Eastern EU states Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia have warned of a risk of military conflict. Their presidents and Poland’s Andrzej Duda said on Monday Lukashenko should be held accountable for human trafficking.

Poland and Lithuania are considering requesting NATO consultations on the situation under the military alliances’ collective security provisions.

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(Reporting by Robin Emmott, Sabine Siebold, Maria Kiselyova, Dmitry Antonov, Tom Balmforth, Olzhas Auyezov, Gabriela Baczynska, Alexander Ratz, Thomas Escritt, Pawel Florkiewicz and Andrius Sytas, Writing by Gabriela Baczynska, Editing by Catherine Evans)

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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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