Sunday

26th Sep 2021

EU locks out Belarus from international aviation

  • Minsk airport, where Ryanair jet was forced to land (Photo: El Bingle)

EU leaders have agreed a first wave of economic sanctions against Belarus over Sunday's (23 May) hijacking and said there were more to come.

The EU "calls on all EU-based carriers to avoid overflight of Belarus" and will "ban overflight of EU airspace by Belarusian airlines and prevent access to EU airports of flights operated by such airlines", leaders said in a joint statement after meeting in Brussels on Monday.

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They also promised "further targeted economic sanctions", without giving details, as well as "additional listings of persons and entities" linked to Belarus president Alexander Lukashenko.

The airspace ban will see Belarus lose income from overflight fees, especially on routes to Asia.

It comes on top of earlier EU listing of Lukashenko and over 60 of his cronies over his crackdown on pro-democracy protesters.

But the bulk of Lukashenko's foreign income arises from petrol and fertiliser exports.

And the flight ban will cost EU airlines more due to diverted journeys.

Leaders also demanded "the immediate release of Raman Pratasevich and Sofia Sapega", a Belarusian opposition activist and his Russian girlfriend, who were snatched off a Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius on Sunday after one of Lukashenko's warplanes forced it to land in Minsk.

The state-sponsored hijacking was "without precedent", German chancellor Angela Merkel said.

And Belarus' story - that it forced the plane to land due to a bomb threat by Palestinian militant group Hamas - was "totally implausible", she added.

It was "appallingly reckless and unacceptable", Irish taoiseach Micheál Martin said.

EU leaders, the same day, also discussed Russia relations.

They said the EU "condemns the illegal, provocative, and disruptive Russian activities against the EU, its member states, and beyond", alluding to recent Russian bomb plot revelations in Bulgaria and the Czech Republic.

"It reaffirms the EU's unity and solidarity in the face of such acts," they added.

Some hawkish EU capitals, such as Lithuania, called for extra sanctions on Russia also.

"I called for new measures: limiting access to financial markets and international payment systems [and] halting of strategic infrastructure projects," Lithuanian president Gitanas Nausėda said, referring to a Russian-German pipeline called Nord Stream 2.

And speculation was rife among EU diplomats on whether Russia had had a hand in the Belarus fiasco.

It was hard to conceive the Belarusian KGB spy service would have been capable of putting Pratasevich under surveillance while he was in Greece without Russian help, two EU sources told EUobserver.

And Russia might have wanted Lukashenko to lose all face in the West to make him more dependent on Moscow, another EU source said.

"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," British foreign secretary Dominic Raab also told MPs in the British parliament on Monday.

For its part, Russia's foreign ministry noted that EU states had grounded a flight in 2013 when they were trying to catch US super-whistleblower Edward Snowden.

Meanwhile, Pratasevich was paraded on Belarusian TV, confessing to alleged crimes and saying he had been well treated.

"We hope that he will cope. We are afraid to even think about it, but it's possible he could be beaten and tortured. We are really afraid of that," his father, Dmitri Pratasevich, told the BBC.

"We are really shocked and really upset ... This sort of thing shouldn't be happening in the 21st Century in the heart of Europe," he said.

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