Brussels agreed to ramp up sanctions against Belarus and ban its state airline from EU airports after the Minsk regime triggered global uproar by intercepting a Ryanair flight carrying an opposition activist.
European leaders agreed to “targeted” economic measures that are expected to be aimed at companies and oligarchs accused of financing the 27-year rule of President Alexander Lukashenko.
At a meeting in Brussels on Monday night, the bloc called for the immediate release of Roman Protasevich, the leading opposition activist, and his partner, Sofia Sapega, who were on the flight from Athens to Vilnius and detained in Minsk on Sunday after authorities forced the aircraft to land.
Belarus’s actions were condemned by western countries and raised fears that other authoritarian regimes may try to weaponise the skies. The Belarusian foreign ministry branded the criticism as “baseless” and its close ally Russia called the EU response “shocking”.
I am also co-operating with the investigation and giving evidence of my guilt in organising mass disturbances
A pro-Lukashenko channel on the messaging app Telegram published the first footage of Protasevich since his arrest as the EU leaders were meeting. The activist appeared disheveled and said he was in a jail in Minsk but claimed he was being treated well, despite the bruises visible on his face.
“I am also co-operating with the investigation and giving evidence of my guilt in organising mass disturbances,” he said. He faces 15 years in prison on the charges.
The EU leaders called for the sanctions to be prepared “without delay”. Targeting oligarchs would hurt Lukashenko and his allies while avoiding more sweeping sanctions that could harm ordinary Belarusians, diplomats argued.
Belarusian airlines will be barred from the bloc’s airspace and airports and the leaders urged EU airlines to stop flying over the country.
EU countries also called on the International Civil Aviation Organization to launch an investigation. The UN body, which agrees standards for civil aviation, has called a meeting for this Thursday.
Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission president, said Belarus had used control of its airspace to perpetrate a “state hijacking”.
“This is an attack on democracy; this is an attack on freedom of expression; and this is an attack on European sovereignty. This outrageous behaviour needs a strong answer,” she said.
Roman Protasevich makes his statement from a pre-detention facility in Minsk on Monday © Telegram via Reuters
Joe Biden, the US president, praised Brussels’ actions and hinted that Washington would follow suit. “I welcome the news that the EU has called for targeted economic sanctions and other measures, and have asked my team to develop appropriate options to hold accountable those responsible, in close co-ordination with the EU, other allies and partners and international organisations,” the US president said.
Jen Psaki, White House press secretary, had earlier joined the international condemnation, saying the US had conveyed its concerns to Russia as well as Belarus directly.
Ryanair branded the affair an “act of aviation piracy”. Several European airlines, including Latvia’s airBaltic and Scandinavia’s SAS, said they would stop using Belarusian air space even before the EU decision.
Dominic Raab, Britain’s foreign secretary, described the forced landing and the detentions as a “danger to civilian flights everywhere”, as the UK joined the EU in barring Belarusian airlines and warning carriers to avoid its airspace.
Franak Viacorka, an aide to Belarus’s exiled opposition leader, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, urged further sanctions on lucrative oil and potash sectors, crucial providers of revenue for Lukashenko’s regime.
Emmanuel Macron, France’s president, left, Angela Merkel, Germany’s chancellor, and Charles Michel, president of the European Council, speak before the EU leaders summit in Brussels on Monday © Bloomberg
Relations between Brussels and Minsk deteriorated after last year’s presidential polls, which were widely viewed as rigged in favour of Lukashenko, and an ensuing crackdown which forced many close to Tsikhanouskaya to flee to Vilnius. European leaders imposed new sanctions on Lukashenko and other regime members in December.
Belarus is part of the “Eastern Partnership”, an agreement the EU has with six states close to Russia’s border that allows the countries privileges such as a visa facilitation agreement launched last year. The EU had once hoped to draw Minsk from the Kremlin’s orbit but that ambition appears doomed after Sunday’s events.
Belarusian media said Lukashenko gave the order to divert Ryanair flight FR4978. It was carrying 171 passengers and was abruptly rerouted to the Belarusian capital shortly before it was about to leave the country’s airspace.
Belarusian officials said a MiG-29 fighter jet had been scrambled to escort the airliner to Minsk following a bomb scare, which they later conceded was “false”.
Merkel said Belarus’s explanations for the landing of the aircraft were “completely implausible”.
Anatoly Glaz, the Belarus foreign spokesman, said aviation authorities had acted “in complete accordance with established international rules”. Glaz accused EU countries of “rushing to make openly warlike statements”.
Russia’s foreign ministry echoed the Belarusian attack on western countries’ responses to the incident, accusing them of hypocrisy.
“It is shocking that the west calls the incident in the airspace of Belarus ‘shocking’,” Maria Zakharova, the ministry’s spokeswoman, wrote in a post on her Facebook page, citing other examples of planes being diverted by western nations to arrest wanted people.
Additional reporting by Jasmine Cameron-Chileshe and Philip Georgiadis in London, Erika Solomon in Berlin, Katrina Manson and James Politi in Washington, Richard Milne in Oslo, Roman Olearchyk in Kyiv and Max Seddon in Moscow