Countries condemn Belarus

The European Union worked on new sanctions and commercial jets avoided the airspace as worldwide condemnation grows over the actions of President Alexander Lukashenko. A journalist who was arrested was seen in a brief video clip, sparking concerns about his welfare.

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World News

May 26, 2021 - 9:34 AM

Natalia and Dmitry Protasevich are photographed after an interview with AFP in Wroclaw, Poland on May 25, 2021. From their new home in Poland, the parents of Belarusian journalist Roman Protasevich have been in anguish ever since he was arrested after his Ryanair flight was diverted and forced to land. (Jaap Arriens/AFP/Getty Images/TNS)

BRUSSELS (AP) — Belarus’ isolation deepened Tuesday as commercial jets avoided its airspace, the European Union worked up new sanctions, and officials expressed concern for the welfare of an opposition journalist who was arrested after being pulled off a plane that was diverted to Minsk in what the West called a state-sponsored hijacking.

Belarus' President Alexander Lukashenko delivers a speech during a rally held to support him in central Minsk, on Aug. 16, 2020. (Siarhei Leskiec/AFP/Getty Images/TNS)

The dramatic developments put a spotlight on Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko’s iron-fisted rule and suppression of dissent — but it was not clear what effect more sanctions or other measures would have.

“Additional sanctions? Will this be sufficient? I absolutely can’t say today,” said French President Emmanuel Macron. But, he added: “The unacceptable character of what happened … justifies them.”

After his detention, opposition journalist Raman Pratasevich was seen in a brief video clip on Belarusian state television late Monday, speaking rapidly to say that he was confessing to some of the charges authorities have leveled against him.

The spokesperson for the U.N.’s human rights office, Rupert Colville, said Pratasevich’s appearance likely was not voluntary and that he seemed to have bruising to his face, although it was difficult to tell from the video.

Asked about the video, German Chancellor Angela Merkel agreed with Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson that it was “worrying and disturbing” and makes the EU demand for his release “all the more urgent.” 

“And we will use all channels at our disposal to do this,” she added.

The 26-year-old journalist and activist was arrested Sunday after Belarusian flight controllers ordered the Ryanair jetliner he was aboard to land, telling the crew that there was a bomb threat against the flight. A Belarusian fighter jet was scrambled to escort the plane to Minsk, just before it was to land in Vilnius, Lithuania, from Athens, Greece.

In an unusually swift response to the arrest and flight diversion, EU leaders agreed Monday to ban Belarusian airlines from using the airspace and airports of the 27-nation bloc and impose sanctions on officials linked to the diversion. 

“The measures of restricting flights in particular … are extremely biting on the Belarus system,” Macron said. 

The EU demanded Pratasevich’s release and urged the International Civil Aviation Organization to investigate the diversion, while recommending European carriers avoid Belarus’ airspace. Polish carrier LOT and Baltic airlines began bypassing the country, while Air France, KLM, Lufthansa and others said they will follow suit. 

Belarus has defended its actions. Its Transport Ministry said Tuesday it has invited international aviation, U.S. and EU authorities to investigate the diversion.

In the wake of the brazen move, Belarus’ first post-Soviet leader, Stanislav Shushkevich, urged the West to introduce even tougher sanctions.

“Belarus has become a ‘black hole’ of Europe with repressions reaching a catastrophic scale and its dictator scrambling fighter jets and threatening the entire world,” Shushkevich told The Associated Press in a telephone interview. “The West must understand that only increasing pressure and really tough sanctions could impact Lukashenko and limit repressions.”

EU Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen said the bloc will introduce more sanctions targeting “businesses and economic entities that are financing this regime.”

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