EU leaders agree on Belarus sanctions after plane diversion

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Protesters attach paper planes during a demonstration of Belarusians living in Poland and Poles supporting them in front of European Commission office in Warsaw demanding freedom for Belarus opposition activist Raman Protasevich in Warsaw, Poland, Monday, May 24, 2021. Western outrage grew and the European Union threatened more sanctions Monday against Belarus over its forced diversion of a passenger jet to the capital of Minsk in order to arrest opposition journalist Raman Protasevich in a dramatic gambit that some said amounted to state terrorism or piracy. (AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)

BRUSSELS – The European Union agreed Monday to impose sanctions on Belarus, including banning its airlines from using the airspace and airports of the 27-nation bloc, amid fury over the forced diversion of a passenger jet to arrest an opposition journalist.

Reacting to what EU leaders called a brazen “hijacking” of the Ryanair jetliner flying from Greece to Lithuania on Sunday, they also demanded the immediate release of the journalist, Raman Pratasevich, a key foe of authoritarian Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko.

“We won’t tolerate that one can try to play Russian roulette with the lives of innocent civilians,” said EU Council chief Charles Michel, who presided over the EU meeting.

A brief video clip of Pratasevich, who ran a popular messaging app that played a key role in helping organize huge protests against Lukashenko, was shown on Belarusian state television Monday night, a day after he was removed from the Ryanair flight.

Sitting at a table with his hands folded in front of him and speaking rapidly, Pratasevich said he was in satisfactory health and said his treatment in custody was “maximally correct and according to law.” He added that he was giving evidence to investigators about organizing mass disturbances.

In their unusually swift action in Brussels, the EU leaders also urged all EU-based carriers to avoid flying over Belarus, decided to impose sanctions on officials linked to Sunday's flight diversion, and urged the International Civil Aviation Organization to start an investigation into what they viewed as an unprecedented move and what some said amounted to state terrorism or piracy.

The leaders called on their council “to adopt the necessary measures to ban overflight of EU airspace by Belarusian airlines and prevent access to EU airports of flights operated by such airlines.” In addition calling for the release of Pratasevich, they also urged authorities in Minsk to free his Russian girlfriend, Sofia Sapega, who was taken off the plane with him.

The text was endorsed quickly by the leaders who were determined to respond with a “strong reaction” to the incident because of the “serious endangering of aviation safety and passengers on board by Belarussian authorities,” said an EU official with direct knowledge of the discussions who was not authorized to speak publicly about the private talks.