EU considers shunning Belarusian airspace over forced landing

A Belarusian dog handler checking luggage taken off Ryanair flight FR4978, after it landed at Minsk International Airport, on May 23, 2021. PHOTO: AFP

BRUSSELS (REUTERS) - The European Union is considering shunning Belarus's airspace and banning national carrier Belavia from EU airports after Belarusian authorities scrambled a warplane and forced a Ryanair jetliner to land in Minsk.

EU leaders strongly condemned Belarus over Sunday's (May 23) incident, in which a flight from Greece to Lithuania was diverted and a dissident journalist who was on board the plane was arrested.

They will discuss tightening sanctions already in place against Minsk at a summit on Monday evening (May 24), and could also restrict ground transit links between Belarus and the 27-nation EU.

"Together with international partners, we will work to close the airspace of Belarus to international flights," Lithuanian Prime Minister Ingrida Simonyte said on Monday.

France's Europe Minister, Clement Beaune, called the plane's forced diversion "an act of state piracy that cannot be left unpunished", and proposed tougher sanctions against Belarus.

"We are working on a package of measures that go beyond sanctions against individuals" and may also suspend ground transit links with the EU, French President Emmanuel Macron's office said.

The EU has blacklisted 88 individuals and seven companies accused of "repression and intimidation" following protests against veteran leader Aleksander Lukashenko's victory in a presidential election last year which opponents say was rigged.

The sanctions also include a ban on travel to the EU for Lukashenko and his son, and the freezing of any assets they have in EU member states.

"We could extend these sanctions to other officials," Beaune told BFM Television, suggesting an airspace ban would be "reasonable protective measure because Europeans' lives were put at risk."

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell called for the release of opposition-minded journalist Roman Protasevich, who was detained onboard the plane, and an investigation into whether international aviation rules were violated.

Latvian airline airBaltic has already said it will no longer use Belarusian airspace for its flights.

Outrage over the Belarus incident is likely to spill over into a discussion the EU leaders were due to have at the long-arranged summit about where to take their fraught relationship with Moscow, which has long stood behind Lukashenko.

The EU has trod warily on imposing sanctions on Belarus because of the risk that it would push Lukashenko into even closer ties with Russia.

"It's not so easy to calibrate sanctions if you want to spare the population," a senior EU diplomat said on possible new measures against Minsk.

Germany's Ursula von der Leyen, who heads the EU's executive European Commission, accused Minsk of hijacking the civilian plane. Washington has also condemned "the shocking act".

SPH Brightcove Video
The European Union and NATO military alliance may cut off transport links into Belarus, after the country used a fighter jet to ground a Ryanair passenger flight and arrest a dissident journalist aboard.

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