US rolls out punitive measures against Belarus over journalist's detention

Mr Roman Protasevich (right) and his girlfriend Sofia Sapega have been detained in Minsk despite international calls for their release. PHOTO: AFP PHOTO / TELEGRAM CHANNEL NEVOLF

WASHINGTON (BLOOMBERG) - The Biden administration announced it would re-impose sanctions against nine Belarusian state-owned enterprises and is developing additional penalties to target officials in the administration of President Alexander Lukashenko over a forced landing of a Ryanair jetliner and arrest of a dissident journalist.

The administration has also urged American citizens to steer clear of Belarus and notified US pilots to "exercise extreme caution" when considering flying in Belarusian airspace, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said in a statement on Friday (May 28) night.

The Treasury Department is also crafting an executive order that will "provide the United States increased authorities to impose sanctions on elements of the Lukashenko regime, its support network and those that support corruption, the abuse of human rights and attacks on democracy", she added.

"Belarus' forced diversion of a commercial Ryanair flight under false pretences, travelling between two member states of the European Union, and the subsequent removal and arrest of Mr Roman Protasevich, a Belarusian journalist, are a direct affront to international norms," Ms Psaki said.

Belarus earlier this week forced the landing of a jetliner carrying Mr Protasevich, 26, an outspoken critic of the Lukashenko regime, as it was travelling between Greece and Lithuania.

He has been detained in Minsk alongside his girlfriend, Ms Sofia Sapega, despite international calls for their release.

European Union (EU) officials on Thursday detailed plans for their own sanctions against Belarus that would hit economic sectors close to Mr Lukashenko, including the potash industry.

Those are likely to have a greater impact than the penalties announced by the White House. US trade with Belarus amounted to only about US$112 million (S$148 million) in 2020, according to the US Census Bureau.

The announcement came after some lawmakers earlier this week called for the Federal Aviation Administration to fully prohibit US aircraft from entering Belarus air space after the episode. The US is suspending its discretionary application of the 2019 US-Belarus Air Services Agreement, the White House said.

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Russia has backed Mr Lukashenko over the past quarter century, including during a brutal crackdown on the opposition last year, even as he resisted Moscow's push for closer economic and political union.

Even so, he has been adept in the past at playing off the EU and Russia against each other to retain his independence.

Russian President Vladimir Putin warmly greeted Mr Lukashenko in the Black Sea resort of Sochi on Friday.

"I'm very happy to see you," he said, agreeing as Mr Lukashenko belittled Western criticism of the airliner incident as "a surge of emotions".

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