EU imposes new economic sanctions on Belarus over ‘hijacked’ flight | Belarus

EU leaders triggered new economic sanctions against Belarus and punitive measures against its national airline as a dissident taken from a “hijacked” Ryanair flight was paraded on the country’s television news apparently confessing to crimes against the state.

In a summit communique swiftly agreed in Brussels on Monday night, the EU’s 27 heads of state and government condemned the forced landing of flight FR4978 in Minsk and called for the immediate release of opposition blogger Roman Protasevich and his Russian girlfriend, Sofia Sapega.

The statement came shortly after the release of a video in which Protasevich denied reports that he had suffered health problems since his arrest in the Belarusian capital and said that he was confessing to inciting mass riots, a charge that carries a maximum prison sentence of 15 years. The video, which appeared to have been filmed by police, was Protasevich’s first appearance since his arrest.

Protasevich, who was dressed in a black hoodie and seated next to a pack of cigarettes, said: “I can declare that I have no problems with my health, either with my heart or with any other organs. [Police] officers are treating me absolutely correctly and according to the law. I’m currently continuing to cooperate with the investigation and am giving a confession to the organisation of mass arrests in the city of Minsk.”

The opposition journalist appeared to have bruising above his right eye. He has not previously said he planned to confess to the charges against him, and several journalists who know him have said they believe he is under duress.

Late on Monday, Joe Biden condemned “in the strongest possible terms” the operation to arrest Protasevich, calling it “a direct affront to international norms” and called for his release. He welcomed EU sanctions, adding that his team was assessing “appropriate options”.

Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, earlier spoke to Belarusian democratic opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya about the “brazen and dangerous grounding” of Protasevich’s Ryanair flight and reassured her of US support for democracy, human rights, and fundamental freedoms in the country.

Sullivan has also “raised our strong concerns” about Belarus’s action with his Kremlin counterpart, according to the US White House press secretary, Jen Psaki.

Under the measures agreed by the EU leaders, a raft of economic sanctions will be applied against those involved in the arrests adding to those imposed months earlier on nearly 60 Belarusian officials, including president Alexander Lukashenko and his son Victor, relating to the crackdown on peaceful protests against last August’s allegedly rigged presidential election result.

The new sanctions will cover individuals involved in the hijacking, businesses that finance the Belarus regime and the aviation sector.

The EU’s heads of state and government also called on EU carriers to avoid Belarusian airspace and agreed “to adopt the necessary measures to ban overflight of EU airspace by Belarusian airlines and prevent access to EU airports” in a major blow to the country’s national airline. European flights over the country’s airspace have already been suspended.

Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel, said the actions of the Belarus authorities were “without precedent”, describing attempts by Lukashenko’s regime to explain away the forced landing as a response to a Hamas bomb threat as “totally uncredible.”

An EU official said leaders, who had been asked to leave phones outside for security reasons, had “approved the strong actions” proposed by European Council president Charles Michel and that “the text was endorsed very quickly”.

There was a “strong reaction because serious endangering of aviation safety and passengers on board by Belarusian authorities”, the source added.

Attention was also focusing on Monday evening on Russia’s role in the forced landing of flight FR4978 in Minsk as the UK’s foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, told the House of Commons it was unlikely to have been done without Kremlin approval.

Raab described the “reckless and dangerous” arrest of Protasevich and Sapega as “a shocking assault on civil aviation and an assault on international law” as the UK government announced the suspension of the operating permit of Belavia, the country’s national airline. The UK is also examining the case for applying sanctions.

Asked about possible Russian involvement, Raab told the Commons: “We don’t have any clear details on that and I’ll be careful on what I say at this point. But as he says 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, but as I say it’s unclear as yet.”

Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, said the case “should be assessed without any haste and hurry and based on all information available”. He pointed to past incidents of Austria grounding a flight with Bolivian president Evo Morales on board in 2013 and Ukraine grounding a flight in 2016 as his foreign ministry issued a statement describing the EU’s response as “shocking”.

Protasevich and Sapega were flying from Athens to Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, when the plane was diverted to Minsk minutes from leaving Belarusian airspace in what Ryanair later described as an “act of aviation piracy”.

Protasevich, a former editor of the influential Telegram channels Nexta and Nexta Live, one of the main independent Belarusian media groups, was detained by police after Lukashenko ordered his military to scramble a Mig-29 fighter to meet the plane.

Passengers onboard said Protasevich began handing his phone and other personal items to Sapega, a Russian citizen studying at the European Humanities University (EHU) in Lithuania, when he learned that the flight would be making an emergency landing.

“I’m facing the death penalty here,” a trembling Protasevich reportedly told a fellow passenger from the plane before he was led away by Belarusian police. The mass unrest charges against him carry a sentence of up to 15 years. His current whereabouts is not known.

According to colleagues, Protasevich had sent them messages claiming he was being followed by a man in the departure lounge in Athens he suspected was a Belarusian KGB agent. The man was said to have been behind him in the queue to board and to have tried to take a photo of his documents before asking Protasevich a “stupid question” in Russian and leaving.

EHU has said Sapega had also been detained by the Minsk investigative committee on “groundless and made-up conditions”. She was preparing to defend her master’s thesis in Vilnius, the university said.

Russia on Monday confirmed that it had made contact with Sapega. According to the BBC Russian service, she managed to write a text message to her mother with just one word: “Mama”.

Ryanair’s chief executive, Michael O’Leary, said he believed that agents of the Belarusian KGB were travelling on the plane.

O’Leary’s remarks were the first official confirmation of reports that four other passengers had disembarked in Minsk after the emergency landing, driving speculation that Protasevich was being shadowed by the security services before the plane was forced to land. O’Leary said he believed it was the first time such an incident had taken place with a European airline.

Arriving in Brussels, Ireland’s taoiseach Micheál Martin had said the “forcing down” of the Ryanair plane had been “appalling reckless and unacceptable” and that he would encourage fellow leaders to deliver a “very firm and strong response”.

Belarus’s ambassadors across Europe, including in London, Berlin and Brussels, were summoned by their hosts on Monday for a dressing down over Sunday’s extraordinary events.

While relations between the EU and Belarus have deteriorated since Lukashenko cracked down on those protesting against what they believe was a rigged presidential election last August, the country remains part of the “Eastern Partnership” between the EU and six states close to Russia’s border.

Tensions in the region continued to escalate on Monday, however, as Minsk expelled the Latvian ambassador after officials in Riga raised a white-red-white flag in a central square in a show of solidarity with the Belarusian opposition. Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy also announced that the country would halt air traffic with Belarus.

Minsk has blamed the west for the escalating tensions, calling the accusations over the incident “hasty and openly belligerent”.

“The situation is being intentionally politicised, and there are baseless accusations and labelling,” the Belarusian foreign ministry said in a statement.

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