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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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Iran plays hardball as nuclear talks with world powers resume

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November 29, 2021

By Francois Murphy, Parisa Hafezi and John Irish

VIENNA (Reuters) -Iran and world powers resumed talks on Monday after a five-month hiatus to try to salvage their 2015 nuclear deal but with Tehran sticking to its tough stance and Western powers warning that will not work, hopes of a breakthrough appeared slim.

Diplomats say time is running out to resurrect the pact, which then-U.S. President Donald Trump abandoned in 2018, angering Iran and dismaying the other powers involved – Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia.

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Six rounds of indirect talks were held between April and June. The new round formally began with a meeting of the remaining parties to the deal, without the United States, shortly after 1400 GMT.

The meeting in Vienna ended an extended break triggered by the election of hardline cleric Ebrahim Raisi in June as Iran’s president. The talks are effectively indirect negotiations between Tehran and Washington since Iran refuses to meet face to face with U.S. envoys. Other officials shuttle between them.

Tehran’s negotiating team has set out demands that U.S. and European diplomats consider unrealistic, Western diplomats say.

“Our demands are clear. Other parties and especially Americans should decide whether they want this deal to be revived or not. They abandoned the pact, so they should return to it and lift all sanctions,” an Iranian official close to the talks told Reuters.

Iran has adopted an uncompromising position by demanding removal of all U.S. and European Union sanctions imposed since 2017, including those unrelated to its nuclear programme, in a verifiable process.

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“The United States still fails to properly understand the fact that there is no way to return to the deal without a verifiable and effective lifting of all sanctions,” Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian said in a statement shortly after the talks resumed.

“The return of the U.S. to the nuclear deal would be meaningless without guarantees to prevent the recurrence of the bitter experience of the past,” he said. “This opportunity is not a window that can remain open forever.”

TENSIONS

In parallel, Tehran’s conflicts with the U.N. atomic watchdog, which monitors its nuclear programme, have festered.

As Iran has advanced its uranium enrichment, the International Atomic Energy Agency says its inspectors have been treated roughly and refused access to reinstall monitoring cameras at a site it deems essential to reviving the deal.

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“If Iran thinks it can use this time to build more leverage and then come back and say they want something better, it simply won’t work. We and our partners won’t go for it,” U.S. envoy Robert Malley told BBC Sounds on Saturday.

Since Trump took the United States out of the deal, Iran has breached many of its restrictions meant to lengthen the time it would need to generate enough fissile material for a nuclear bomb https://www.reuters.com/news/picture/explainer-what-remains-of-the-iran-nucle-idUSKBN2ID0E4. Iran says it wants to enrich uranium only for civil uses.

Malley warned that Washington would be ready to ramp up pressure on Tehran if the talks collapse.

Diplomats have said Washington has suggested negotiating an open-ended interim accord with Tehran as long as a permanent deal is not achieved. Several Iranian officials told Reuters Iran had no intention of accepting an interim deal.

Iran’s arch-enemy Israel, which opposed the original deal as too limited in scope and duration, has said military options will be on the table if diplomacy fails.

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“They (Iranians) will play for time, earn billions from the removal of sanctions, continue to deceive the world, and covertly advance their nuclear programme,” Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid told reporters in London https://www.reuters.com/world/middle-east/israels-lapid-urges-world-keep-up-pressure-iran-2021-11-29.

“The intelligence is clear. It leaves no doubt.”

(Writing by John Irish and Parisa Hafezi Editing by Mark Heinrich)

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U.N. chief concerned about southern Africa isolation over Omicron

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November 29, 2021

By Michelle Nichols

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) -U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said on Monday he was deeply concerned about the isolation of southern African countries after COVID-19 travel restrictions were imposed by several countries over the new Omicron variant of coronavirus.

“I appeal to all governments to consider repeated testing for travelers, together with other appropriate and truly effective measures, with the objective of avoiding the risk of transmission so as to allow for travel and economic engagement,” Guterres said in a statement.

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The Omicron variant of coronavirus carries a very high global risk of surges https://www.reuters.com/world/spread-omicron-variant-forces-nations-rethink-plans-global-travel-2021-11-29, the World Health Organization warned on Monday, as more countries reported cases.

Omicron was first identified in southern Africa and many countries, including the United States and Britain, have announced travel curbs and other restrictions on the region. Africa has some of the lowest COVID-19 vaccination rates worldwide due to a lack of access to doses.

Guterres has long warned about the dangers of vaccine inequality around the world and that low immunization rates are “a breeding ground for variants.”

“The people of Africa cannot be blamed for the immorally low level of vaccinations available in Africa – and they should not be penalized for identifying and sharing crucial science and health information with the world,” he said.

(Reporting by Michelle Nichols; Editing by Dan Grebler)

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Belarus announces military drills with Russia near Ukraine border

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November 29, 2021

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Belarus on Monday announced joint military drills with close ally Russia on its southern border with Ukraine and accused the NATO military alliance of building up offensive capabilities near its borders.

U.S., NATO and Ukrainian officials say Russia has built up forces near Ukraine, sparking fears of a looming attack. Moscow denies any such plan. Belarus is itself locked in a row with the European Union over migrants camped at its western border.

Casting it as a response to new military deployments in countries to the west and south of Belarus, Defence Minister Viktor Khrenin said Minsk would hold an exercise with Russia in the “medium term”. He gave no specific date.

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“We see troop formations around our state borders… We can only be concerned by the militarisation of our neighouring countries, which is why are forced to plan measures in response,” he said in comments on his ministry’s website.

NATO member Lithuania, which lies to the west of Belarus, said on Sunday the Atlantic alliance needed to adjust its stance towards Belarus, whose military, it said, was becoming more integrated with Russia’s armed forces.

On Monday, Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko said Minsk would not sit idly on the sidelines if the simmering conflict in eastern Ukraine erupted or a war broke out with the West at Russia’s borders.

“…it is clear whose side Belarus will be on,” he said in a clear nod to Russia, whose financial and political backing helped him weather huge protests against his rule that broke out last autumn.

“They understand this, that’s why they’ve begun strengthening their northern Belarus-Ukraine border,” Lukashenko was quoted as saying by Interfax news agency.

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The comments appeared to contrast with the more neutral stance taken by Lukashenko after Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine and its backing for separatist forces in Ukraine’s east.

Minsk, like most of the world, still recognises Crimea as Ukrainian territory.

(Reporting by Maxim Rodionov; Writing by Tom Balmforth; Editing by Gareth Jones)

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