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Blaming Turkey or its national airline for the humanitarian crisis at the Polish border with Belarus is "misguided", President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's top foreign policy adviser told AFP on Saturday.
Ankara on Friday banned citizens of three Middle Eastern countries from flying from Turkish airports to the former Soviet republic because of "the problem of illegal border crossings between the European Union and Belarus".
The decision came days after EU chief Ursula von der Leyen raised the possibility of imposing sanctions on airlines that engage in "human trafficking".
Turkish Airlines provides one of the most heavily used international links to the Belarusian capital Minsk.
But Erdogan's foreign policy aide Ibrahim Kalin said accusations that Turkey somehow contributed to the border crisis were unjust.
"This recent crisis of illegal migrants between Belarus, Poland, Lithuania and a few other European countries, in fact, has nothing to do with Turkey," he said in an exclusive interview.
"Travellers are going to Belarus and from there to Lithuania, Poland and other EU countries. Blaming Turkey for that, or Turkish Airlines, is simply so misguided, misplaced," he said.
- 'Thank you' -
Turkey's announcement was met with relief by European officials at a time of lingering strains in Ankara's relations with Brussels.
"Thank you to the Turkish authorities and (civil aviation agency) for your support and cooperation," European Council president Charles Michel tweeted.
Kalim said Turkey made its decision after intense consultations with Polish and other European officials.
"Look, we do not want to see any human being from any country to be used as a bargaining chip or as subject of human trafficking, or in some kind of political crisis between countries," he said.
But he added that Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu "made it very clear to his counterparts in Poland, Lithuania and as well as Belarus that, you know, we do not carry any responsibility".
Turkey is home to up to five million refugees and migrants -- most of them from war-scarred Syria -- and remains one of the preferred routes for migrants and refugees to enter Europe.
The number of migrants passing through Turkey has ticked back up after falling off sharply in the first year of the coronavirus pandemic.
"The numbers vary, of course, they have increased in the last few months," Kalin said.
"We want to make sure that those who travel, that they travel with two-way tickets. That they come back. But if there are any people who get lost in Belarus again, that's not our responsibility," he stressed.