Moscow (AFP) -
President Alexander Lukashenko said Monday that Belarus was working to repatriate the migrants that have amassed on its border with Poland, appearing to move to defuse the crisis ahead of an EU meeting over new sanctions on Minsk.
Thousands of migrants have been trying to cross from Belarus into EU member Poland for months but tensions soared last week as coordinated efforts to cross were rebuffed by Polish border guards.
Brussels accuses Belarus of luring migrants to the ex-Soviet country and sending them on to the European Union as retribution for sanctions.
The foreign ministers of the 27-nation bloc were meeting Monday to adopt new penalties over the crisis.
Lukashenko said ahead of the meeting that Belarus does not want the border situation to escalate into a 'conflict' and that it was working to send home the several thousand migrants, mostly from the Middle East.
'Active work is underway in this area, to convince people -- please, return home. But nobody wants to go back,' Lukashenko said, as quoted by state news agency Belta.
'But these people, I must say, are very stubborn: no one wants to return,' the strongman leader said. 'They do not have housing there, they understand that there is nothing to feed their children.'
The 67-year-old also suggested that Belarus could take up an offer by officials in Munich to ferry the migrants via its state-run airline Belavia to Germany if Poland does not provide a 'humanitarian corridor'.
'We will send them to Munich by our own planes, if necessary,' Lukashenko said.
'Organising a migration flow through Belarus is more expensive for ourselves,' he said. 'We have never done this and do not intend to do this.'
He added that Belarus will respond to additional EU sanctions.
'They think that I am joking,' he said. 'We will defend ourselves.'
- EU sanctions looming -
Minsk has faced waves of EU sanctions in response to a crackdown on the opposition in the wake of last year's presidential elections and Lukashenko's decision to ground a Ryanair flight earlier this year over Belarus to detain an activist.
But despite Lukashenko's apparent olive branch, Germany's Foreign Minister Heiko Maas warned on Monday that Belarus still faced tougher sanctions over the migrant crisis.
'We will further tighten sanctions,' he said, as EU foreign ministers gathered.
Belarus says there are about 2,000 people in the migrant camp, including pregnant women and children. Poland says there are between 3,000 and 4,000 migrants on the border, with more arriving every day.
Belarusian authorities have delivered aid including tents and heaters -- a move that could make the camp a semi-permanent presence on the EU's eastern border.
Poland has refused to allow the migrants in and has accused Belarus of preventing them from leaving.
On Sunday, Warsaw detained dozens of migrants who had crossed into Poland and warned of a possible larger breakthrough ahead of the EU meeting.
Aid agencies say at least 10 migrants have died so far and have warned of a humanitarian crisis unfolding as temperatures drop below freezing.
There have been several signs in recent days, though, that the crisis could relent.
On Sunday, Belavia announced that Syrians, Iraqis, Yemenis and Afghans were banned from incoming flights from the United Arab Emirates at Dubai's request, after Minsk was accused of bringing in migrants to send on to Europe.
The move came after Belavia on Friday banned Syrians, Iraqis and Yemenis from incoming flights from Turkey at Ankara's request.
And on Monday, the Iraqi government said it was organising a repatriation flight this Thursday for its citizens stuck on the Poland-Belarus border on a 'voluntary' basis.