Turkey shuts down a major migrant route to Belarus amid rising tensions with the E.U.

Turkey shuts down a major migrant route to Belarus amid rising tensions with the E.U.

Turkey’s civil aviation authority Friday announced it would block citizens from Iraq, Syria and Yemen from flying to Belarus, after European warnings it could sanction third country airlines over the mounting migrant crisis on the Belarusian border with Poland.

European Commission head Ursula von der Leyen has warned of possible E.U. sanctions against third country airlines facilitating the flow of migrants, amid Europe’s escalating confrontation with the regime of President Alexander Lukashenko.

“Due to the problem of illegal border crossings between the European Union and Belarus, it has been decided that the citizens of Iraq, Syria and Yemen who want to travel to Belarus from Turkish airports will not be allowed to buy tickets and boarding until further notice,” a statement from the Turkish Civil Aviation Authority said Friday, offering refunds.

Europe has threatened new sanctions against Belarus over a crisis it says was orchestrated by Lukashenko as a way to pressure on Europe over sanctions — a claim Minsk denies.

The E.U. has introduced four sanctions packages since October last year over fraudulent 2020 elections, repression of opposition figures and activists, and the forced landing of a Ryanair flight in May to arrest independent Belarusian journalist Roman Protasevich and his girlfriend Sofia Sapega.

Lukashenko Thursday threatened to cut off gas supplies to Europe if there were further sanctions, opening a new front in his confrontation with the bloc. Poland has deployed thousands of troops to the border to prevent migrants from entering.

The Turkish decision plugs one major route being used by migrants trying to reach Europe via Belarus, but others remain, with no exit ramps in sight to the escalating crisis. Dozens of special flights are departing from Middle Eastern countries to Minsk every week.

The Belarusian airline, Belavia, announced Friday that it had stopped citizens from the three countries flying from Turkey to Belarus “consistent with the decision of the Turkish authorities.” But it continues to operate other routes, as do many other airlines.

Poland accused Turkey Tuesday of helping facilitate the crisis by enabling the flights of migrants to Belarus, a claim Turkey denied.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has twice called Russian President Vladimir Putin in recent days to press him to use his influence on Lukashenko to end the crisis but the Kremlin says European leaders should negotiate directly with the Belarusian leader. Lukashenko’s presidency, however, is not recognized by Europe, which dismissed the August 2020 presidential elections as fraudulent.

Russian and Turkish carriers, Aeroflot and Turkish Airlines, have denied any role in fueling the crisis, after a Bloomberg report Thursday that the European Union was considering sanction on the two airlines over the crisis.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Aeroflot did not fly from the migrants’ origin countries to Belarus.

“To my knowledge, Aeroflot does not perform flights between capitals of the countries from where the flow of refugees goes to Europe after Europe, together with America, bombed those countries,” Lavrov said.

Lukashenko’s government appears to be shifting migrants out of Belarusian cities and towns to a growing camp on the border, where authorities say more than 1,700 people are camped in the forest.

The crisis came to a head Monday when a large column of migrants, escorted by Belarusian security forces walked toward the border with Poland to try to cross into the European Union.

The Belarusian State Border Committee said Friday that another group of around 100 migrants was now moving toward the border.

“The situation remains tense. The camp is periodically replenished with new arriving groups of people. Refugees are seeking medical assistance due to long period in conditions where temperatures are falling,” the committee said according to BelTA, the country’s state news agency.

The Iraqi government has offered to help its citizens who wish to return from Belarus, offering to arrange flights.

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