More than 1,500 asylum seekers were repatriated Friday from border camps to Central Asia, as a “hands on” exercise assessed the security of the Russian-Belarusian border along which many migrants are believed to have fled.
Flight 374 left at 09:40 GMT and arrived just over an hour later in the city of Gelendzhik, the city’s mayor told state news agency RIA Novosti.
Two flights with roughly 1,500 people were due to leave the region on Friday, and more flights will be made, Regional Governor Evgeny Doguzhev told Russian news agency TASS.
Thousands of migrants are believed to have fled to the border region after the turmoil in neighboring Syria, and they spend a year living in the camps built to house only about 900 people.
Last month, the Kremlin ordered the construction of another camp for migrants to be built near the border.
Vladimir Putin has said he wants to fully return the migrants to Belarus by the end of the year.
“As of today, the Border Guard Forces and border police have begun not counting a single person here. The first batch of the migrant repatriation has begun,” Putin said during a meeting with a border crossing team on Jan. 29.
The move is the latest manifestation of a deep cold war-like standoff between Moscow and Minsk.
In a seemingly unprecedented move, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko closed several border crossings in the area in October to protest Russian-Minsk security talks on the migrant crisis.
Russians made numerous attempts to cross into Belarus on the pretext of battling extremists or simply looking for work before those crossings were reopened last month.
Croatian, Bulgarian and Slovak police received warnings from Belarus of Russian “preliminary soldiers” seeking asylum, with officials saying they were “partially coordinated by the Russian army.”
The region has been rocked by violence in recent months as well, including gunfights in the city of Gelendzhik in December.
Russia sent more than 500 troops to the regional border region in December, fueling suspicions of military meddling.
And last month, the deployment of Russian special forces troops to the region caused concern in Kiev and triggered concerns of the US military becoming more involved in the region.
The Kremlin dismissed claims of Moscow using special forces and claimed that the deployments were intended to “ease strained relations” with Belarus.