Friday 9/17/21

EU leaders weigh Belarus sanctions after forced landing scandal

Governments and officials said the incident was a state "hijacking" of a commercial flight between two EU countries.
24 May 2021, Berlin: The national flag of Belarus flies in front of the Belarusian embassy in Berlin. The EU has strongly condemned the forced landing of a scheduled flight by Belarusian authorities in Minsk and held out the prospect of sanctions against those responsible. Belarusian authorities dispatched a fighter jet to force a Ryanair flight to divert to Minsk, where Roman Protasevich, a Belarusian journalist and opposition activist, who was on board was then arrested. Photo: Christoph Soeder/dpa
The national flag of Belarus flies in front of the Belarusian embassy in Berlin. Photo: Christoph Soeder/dpa.

The European Union could decide to sanction Belarus once again on Monday evening after the country forced a Ryanair flight to land and detained a Belarusian opposition journalist on board.

The incident, which interrupted a flight between two EU countries, has leapt onto the agenda of a Brussels summit at the last minute, souring relations between Minsk and the bloc even further.

European Council President Charles Michel slammed the move by Minsk as an "international scandal" that put the lives of European civilians at risk.

EU officials were drafting a variety of punitive measures for the bloc to consider, Michel said. "I hope tonight we can make a decision on that," he told journalists before the summit.

One possibility is targeted sanctions against people responsible for what EU governments and officials said was a state "hijacking" of a commercial flight between Athens and Vilnius on Sunday.

This would be the fourth round of punitive measures since October.

The member states could also ban national airline Belavia from landing at EU airports or order EU airlines to avoid Belarusian airspace. This is legally more complicated than targeting individuals, however.

Dissident journalist

Dissident journalist Roman Protasevich, who had been on board, was taken into custody after the flight was diverted to the Belarusian capital on allegations of a bomb threat.

The manoeuvre caused international outrage. The bloc's foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell called it "yet another blatant attempt by the Belarusian authorities to silence all opposition voices."

"In carrying out this coercive act, the Belarusian authorities have jeopardised the safety of passengers and crew," he said, calling for an international investigation and for 26-year-old Protasevich to be released.

Belarus said it is open to an international investigation into the forced landing. Foreign Ministry spokesperson Anatoly Glass rejected EU criticism saying Minsk had had fully complied with international regulations.

Belarus has seen months of protests - matched with a dogged crackdown - after authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko claimed victory in an election in August last year that the opposition sees as rigged.

Since the poll, which the EU maintains was neither free nor fair, the bloc has imposed sanctions over several rounds. The total of targeted individuals is currently 88, including Lukashenko himself, plus seven entities.

NATO to discuss the matter

The 66-year-old has led Belarus - a former Soviet republic in Eastern Europe bordering EU states Poland, Lithuania and Latvia - for more than a quarter of a century, tolerating little dissent.

NATO ambassadors are likewise set to discuss the matter on Monday. Britain is also weighing sanctions.

The EU summoned Belarusian ambassador Aleksandr Mikhnevich, during which he "was informed of the firm condemnation by the EU institutions," according to a statement. Several member states also hauled in Belarusian envoys bilaterally.

The Brussels summit was initially scheduled to focus on debates on the bloc's strategy towards Russia, for example, and was expected to be relatively uneventful.

Minsk has grown closer to Moscow in recent years. But Lukashenko has also maintained relations with EU partners in his almost 27 years in power.

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