EU sees ‘progress’ as Turkey curbs Belarus flights, Russia dismisses gas threats

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The European Union said on Friday it was making progress in tackling a migrant crisis on the Belarus-Poland border after Turkey barred the citizens of three Middle Eastern countries from flying to Minsk and Russia dismissed Belarus's threat to cut off a gas pipeline to Europe.

Hundreds of migrants, mainly Kurds from the Middle East, have been stuck for days on the border in near-freezing temperatures, with the WHO saying on Friday it was "very concerned" about their plight.

Poland is refusing to allow them to cross, with the West accusing Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko of bringing them into the country to send over the border in revenge for sanctions.

In the first move to prevent more migrants from arriving, Turkey said that Iraqis, Syrians and Yemenis would no longer be allowed on flights from Turkey to Belarus because of "the problem of illegal border crossings" into the EU.

"We are seeing progress on all fronts," European Commission Vice President Margaritis Schinas told a press conference in Lebanon, adding that he would soon be travelling to Iraq and Turkey.

A German foreign ministry spokeswoman said talks were continuing with airlines and countries along possible migrant routes, and that the Turkish ban showed "we already have some success".

Amid reports this week of more flights from the Middle East carrying migrants to Minsk, Western countries are demanding Lukashenko and his main ally Russia take steps to end the crisis.

Speaking on the sidelines of a Libya summit in Paris, France's defence and foreign ministers urged their Russian counterparts to use Moscow's considerable clout to put pressure on the Belarusian strongman.

French Defence Minister Florence Parly and Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian "encouraged Russia to mobilise its close ties with Belarus to ensure [the migrant crisis] is brought to an end," France's foreign ministry said after the talks.

Russia's reliability as gas supplier 'beyond question'

After an emergency meeting at the UN Security Council on Thursday, the US and European delegations accused Minsk of endangering lives for political purposes and trying to divert attention "from its own increasing human rights violations".

Minsk and Moscow have accused EU countries of failing to live up to international standards by blocking the migrants, who they say are seeking shelter after Western military "adventures" in the Middle East.

In a show of support for Minsk, Russia has sent strategic bombers to patrol over Belarus this week and on Friday the two countries said a joint battalion of paratroopers was holding snap drills near the Polish border.

Moscow has rejected any claims it is involved in the migrant crisis, with President Vladimir Putin telling Europe it should "restore contacts" with Minsk if it wants a resolution.

The EU is instead considering new measures against Lukashenko, who is already under sanctions for a severe crackdown on opponents after a disputed presidential election last year.

The Belarusian leader, who has ruled the ex-Soviet country for nearly 30 years, suggested Belarus could cut off a gas pipeline to Europe in response.

But the Kremlin dismissed the threat on Friday, saying Russia's reliability as a gas supplier "is beyond question".

Migrants stranded in 'no-man's land'

Poland, for its part, has moved 15,000 troops to the Belarusian border, put up a fence topped with barbed wire and approved the construction of a wall.

Migrants have been trying to cross the border for months but the crisis came to a head when hundreds made a concerted effort on Monday and were pushed back by Polish border guards.

They set up a camp on the border where some 2,000 people are sheltering in tents and burning wood from local forests to keep warm.

At least 10 migrants have died on the border in recent months, seven of them on the Polish side, according to Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza.

Journalists and charity workers have been banned from the immediate border area by Polish emergency rules. Belarus also limits access to the country for foreign journalists.

It is unclear how many migrants are now in Belarus but thousands have crossed or attempted to cross from the country into the eastern EU states of Latvia, Lithuania and Poland since the summer.

Poland's border guard service said Friday there had been more than 4,000 attempts to cross without permission since the start of November.

WHO Europe Director Hans Kluge said he was "very concerned about the thousands of vulnerable people who are stranded in no-man's land ... at the mercy of the weather as winter fast approaches".

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)

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