European leaders on Tuesday agreed to ban Belarus’ state airline from European Union airports as well as impose economic sanctions targeting companies and individuals accused of financing the regime.
The EU called for the immediate release of journalist and activist Roman Protasevich who was arrested from a Ryanair flight that was forced to land in Minsk on Sunday.
Mr Protasevich, 26, is the founder of the Telegram channel Nexta, which helped mobilise anti-Lukashenko protests. He was charged last year with “organizing mass riots and group actions that grossly violate public order.”
Since then, he has been on a government wanted list for terrorism.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen called the incident a “state hijacking” and an “attack on European sovereignty.”
She warned that Belarus would face “severe consequences” for its actions.
“This is an attack on democracy,” the commission president said. “This is an attack on freedom of expression. And this is an attack on European sovereignty. And this outrageous behaviour needs a strong answer.”
She added that a 3 billion euro investment and economic package for Belarus will remain on hold until Belarus “turns democratic.”
EU leaders will discuss further sanctions, she said, including against business and economic entities that are financing the regime and against the aviation sector in Belarus after the “hijacking” of the flight.
The European Union’s foreign affairs chief, Josep Borrell, said in a statement the arrest constitutes “yet another blatant attempt by Belarusian authorities to silence all opposition voices.”
“In carrying out this coercive act, the Belarusian authorities have jeopardised the safety of passengers and crew. An international investigation into this incident must be carried out to ascertain any breach of international aviation rules,” he noted.
“This situation will be raised at the upcoming meeting of the European Council. The EU will consider the consequences of this action, including taking measures against those responsible.”
In reaction to the incident, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said the United States “strongly condemn” the Belarusian regime’s “brazen and shocking act to divert a commercial flight to arrest a journalist”.
“We demand an international investigation and are coordinating with our partners on next steps,” he wrote on Twitter.
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