EU leaders agree on new sanctions against Belarus, including ban on use of EU airspace, airports

A Belarusian dog handler checks luggages off a Ryanair Boeing 737-8AS (flight number FR4978) parked on Minsk International Airport’s apron in Minsk, on May 23, 2021. (Photo by – / ONLINER.BY / AFP)

The European Union agreed Monday to impose sanctions on Belarus, including banning its airlines from using the airspace and airports of the 27-nation bloc, amid fury over the forced diversion of a passenger jet to arrest an opposition journalist.

The Authoritarian Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko sparked international outrage by dispatching a fighter jet Sunday to intercept a Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius carrying wanted reporter Roman Protasevich, 26, and his girlfriend Sofia Sapega.

European leaders meeting in Brussels called for the release of the pair and hit back at Minsk by agreeing to ban Belarusian airlines from the bloc and urging EU-based carriers not to fly over its airspace.

The leaders also warned they would adopt further “targeted economic sanctions” against the Belarusian authorities to add to the 88 regime figures and seven companies already on a blacklist over a crackdown on the opposition.

The move came as Belarusian state television broadcast a 30-second video of Protasevich, who had been living between Lithuania and Poland, confirming that he was in prison in Minsk and “confessing” to charges of organizing mass unrest.

Pratasevich was seen sitting at a table with his hands folded in front of him and speaking rapidly, Pratasevich said he was in satisfactory health and said his treatment in custody was “maximally correct and according to law.” He added that he was giving evidence to investigators about organizing mass disturbances.

Protasevich, who could face 15 years in jail, had dark markings visible on his forehead, saying he was being treated “according to the law”.

On Sunday

Ryanair said Belarusian flight controllers told the crew there was a bomb threat against the plane as it was crossing through Belarus airspace Sunday and ordered it to land. A Belarusian MiG-29 fighter jet was scrambled to escort the plane in a brazen show of force by Lukashenko, who has ruled the country with an iron fist for over a quarter-century.

Belarus authorities then arrested the 26-year-old activist, journalist, and prominent Lukashenko critic. Pratasevich and his Russian girlfriend were taken off the plane shortly after it landed, and authorities haven’t said where they’re being held. Ryanair Flight FR4978, which began in Athens, Greece, was eventually allowed to continue on to Vilnius, Lithuania.

Flight tracker sites indicated the Ryanair flight was about 10 kilometers from the Lithuanian border when it was diverted. There were conflicting reports on what exactly happened.

Belarusian transport ministry official Artem Sikorsky said the Minsk airport had received an email about the bomb threat from the Palestinian militant group Hamas.

But Ryanair said in a statement that Belarusian air traffic control instructed the plane to divert to the capital. The plane was searched, and no bomb was found. Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary described the move as “a case of state-sponsored hijacking … state-sponsored piracy.”

Passengers described Pratasevich’s shock when he realized the plane was going to Minsk.

“He freaked out when the pilot said the plane is diverted to Minsk. He said there’s a death penalty awaiting him there,” passenger Marius Rutkauskas said after the plane finally arrived in Vilnius.

World leaders react

Western leaders accused Belarusian authorities of essentially hijacking a European plane, while Minsk claimed it had reacted to secure the flight after receiving a bomb threat.

“We will not tolerate any attempt to play Russian roulette with the lives of innocent civilians,” EU chief Charles Michel said.

“This is an attack on democracy,” said Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the executive European Commission. “This is an attack on freedom of expression. And this is an attack on European sovereignty. And this outrageous behavior needs a strong answer.”

Von der Leyen added that a €3 billion EU investment and economic package for Belarus will remain on hold until Belarus “turns democratic.”

Screengrab from a video clip shows detained Protasevich talking inside what he said is detention center number one in Minsk. (Photo by Reuters)

U.S. President Joe Biden said late Monday that he asked his team to develop appropriate options to hold accountable those responsible, in close coordination with the European Union, other allies and partners, and international organizations.

“This outrageous incident and the video Mr. Pratasevich appears to have made under duress are shameful assaults on both political dissent and the freedom of the press. The United States joins countries around the world in calling for his release, as well as for the release of the hundreds of political prisoners who are being unjustly detained by the Lukashenka regime,” Biden’s statement said.

The U.S. and the EU have imposed sanctions on top Belarusian officials amid months of protests, which were triggered by Lukashenko’s reelection to a sixth term in an August 2020 vote that the opposition rejected as rigged. More than 34,000 people have been arrested in Belarus since then, and thousands beaten.

Russia unruffled

NATO slammed a “serious and dangerous incident” and said envoys from the military alliance were to discuss it on Tuesday.

The EU and other Western countries have already imposed a wide range of sanctions on Lukashenko’s government over its crackdown on opposition demonstrations that followed his disputed re-election to a sixth term last August. But Lukashenko has remained defiant.

Britain’s Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab raised the possibility that Russia had backed the operation.

“It’s very difficult to believe that this kind of action could have been taken without at least the acquiescence of the authorities in Moscow,” he told parliament.

But Russia has dismissed the outrage in the West.

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Minsk was taking an “absolutely reasonable approach” while ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova mocked the Western indignation.

“We are shocked that the West calls the incident in Belarusian air space ‘shocking,'” Zakharova said on Facebook, accusing Western nations of “kidnappings, forced landings, and illegal arrests”.

A key foe of Lukashenko

Pratasevich was a co-founder of the Telegram messaging app’s Nexta channel, which played a prominent role in helping organize the anti-Lukashenko protests, the biggest challenge to Lukashenko’s 26-year rule. Nearly 2 million Belarusians in the nation of 9.3 million people have followed the channel.

Belarus authorities have labeled the channel “extremist” and charged Pratasevich in absentia of inciting mass riots and fanning social hatred. He could face 15 years in prison.

Protasevich and his co-founder, Stepan Putilo, were added to Belarus’s list of “individuals involved in terrorist activity” last year.

by AFP and AP

 

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