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EU leaders agree range of sanctions on Belarus over arrest of journalist, including air space ban for Belarusian flights

Erik G

THE EUROPEAN COUNCIL has proposed an air traffic ban on Belarus amid outrage over the arrest of opposition journalist Roman Protasevich, after a Ryanair flight he was travelling on was forced to make an emergency landing in Minsk.

The ban will prevent Belarusian airlines from flying in the airspace of the 27 EU member states and prevent them from landing at airports in the EU. The union is also calling on all EU-based carriers to avoid flying over the eastern European country.

It was among a range of sanctions, including economic penalties, that were agreed at a European Council meeting in Brussels this evening, which was planned prior to yesterday’s incident.

The 27 EU leaders demanded an immediate release of Protasevich and called on the United Nations’ aviation agency – the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) – to conduct an investigation.

Earlier this evening, the ICAO called an urgent council meeting to discuss the incident. The meeting is set to take place on Thursday.

The European Council also expressed its solidarity with Latvia following the expulsion of Latvian diplomats, a move it branded as “unjustified”.

European Commission President Ursula Von Der Leyen said earlier that the sanctions would cover individuals involved in the hijacking, businesses that finance the regime of president Alexander Lukashenko and the Belarussian aviation sector.

“We will put pressure on the regime until it finally respects the freedom of media, the freedom of press and the freedom of opinion,” Von Der Leyen said.

The commission president added that a €3 billion EU investment package for Belarus will be frozen until the country becomes democratic.

Earlier today, Belarus defiantly defended its forced diversion of the Ryanair plane carrying the 26-year-old journalist and opposition activist, after the move provoked a global outcry.

The flight from Athens to Vilnius was diverted while in Belarusian airspace yesterday over a supposed bomb threat.

Accompanied by a Belarusian fighter jet, it landed in the capital Minsk where Protasevich, who had been living between Poland and Lithuania, was arrested along with his girlfriend.

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Belarus claimed today that the threat came from the Palestinian militant group Hamas. Hamas rejected the claim.

Speaking in Brussels this afternoon, Taoiseach Micheál Martin said Protasevich should be released. He said Ireland will be articulating its view at the meeting today, stating that he will be pushing “very strongly” for assurances of his well being.

A spokesman for UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said he was “deeply concerned” by the incident and called for a full investigation.

In a video circulated by Belarus state TV channels this evening, Protasevich said he is cooperating with authorities and “confessing” to charges of organising protests 

“I can say that I have no health problems… I continue cooperating with investigators and am confessing to having organised mass unrest in the city of Minsk,” he said in the video.

Source: http://prntscr.com/fub00u

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