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Around 600 Iraqis To Return Home From Belarus

Around 600 Iraqis stranded for weeks on the Belarus-Poland border are expected to return home on November 26, the Iraqi government and officials in the autonomous Kurdish region have said.

Hundreds of Iraqis, most of them Kurds, returned home last week on the first repatriation flight from Belarus, where thousands of migrants have camped in freezing temperatures during a standoff between Belarus and the European Union.

Iraqi Foreign Ministry spokesman Ahmad al-Sahaf said that 617 citizens were being voluntarily repatriated on two Iraqi Airways flights from the Belarusian capital, Minsk, the official Iraqi news agency reported on November 25.

Both planes are due to land in the early hours of November 26 in Irbil, the capital of the northern Kurdish region, Kurdistan regional government spokesman Jotiar Adil said on Twitter .

On November 18, a total of 431 migrants returned on an Iraqi Airways plane from Minsk. The plane stopped first in Irbil before flying on to Baghdad.

The EU accuses Belarusian strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka of flying in mostly Middle Eastern migrants and funneling them to the borders of member states Poland, Latvia, and Lithuania to retaliate for sanctions the bloc imposed over a sweeping crackdown following last year's disputed presidential election.

Brussels has accused Minsk of an "inhuman, gangster-style approach" to the crisis at the border, where at least 11 migrants have died in recent months.

In response, Poland has bolstered its border to prevent a surge of migrants, seeking to push them back in a policy criticized by human rights groups.

Warsaw says groups of migrants are still continuing to illegally cross the border from Belarus, and has warned against interpreting recent moves by Minsk to repatriate some of the migrants as a de-escalation of the crisis on the EU's eastern frontier.

Meanwhile, the EU is readying a fifth package of sanctions against Belarus for mounting a "hybrid attack" using migrants against the bloc and has been in contact with Iraq and other countries about repatriating the migrants.

In a BBC interview, Lukashenka, who has been in power since 1994, denied inviting migrants to Belarus in order to provoke a border crisis.

"I told them I'm not going to detain migrants on the border, hold them at the border, and if they keep coming from now on I still won't stop them, because they're not coming to my country, they're going to yours," he told the BBC.

With reporting by AFP and Kurdistan 24

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