EU closes airspace with Belarus

After Belarusian operation to arrest journalist Roman Protasevich
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PHOTO/JOHN THYS via REUTERS  -   The President of the European Council, Charles Michel, at a press conference at the EU summit in the European Council building in Brussels

The European Union (EU) agreed on Monday to close airspace with Belarus after the regime of Alexander Lukashenko forced a Ryanair plane to make a forced landing at Minsk airport on Sunday to arrest journalist Roman Protasevich.

Meeting at a face-to-face summit in Brussels, EU heads of state and government demanded the "immediate release" of the journalist and banned Belarusian airlines, including state-owned Belavia, from flying over EU airspace. They also asked EU airlines to "avoid" overflying Belarus.

Several European airlines, including Latvia's airBaltic and Scandinavia's SAS, as well as the Dutch airline KLM, said they would stop using Belarusian airspace.

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PHOTO/REUTERS - Blogger and opposition activist Roman Protasevich

The issue was the first to be addressed by the leaders, after European Council President Charles Michel put it on the summit agenda as a matter of urgency on Sunday.

"This is a threat to international security and to civil aviation" and the EU will take a "firm reaction", Michel said, before the meeting began.

"We will not tolerate Russian roulette being played with the lives of innocent civilians. What happened yesterday is absolutely unacceptable," he added at a press conference after the first day of the summit.

"Airspace control has been used for state hijacking," said European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.

The EU needed to give a "rapid response" after what happened, European sources told Efe, although the EU-27 now have to agree on the technical details of how the approved sanctions will be carried out.

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AFP/AFP - File on Belarusian dissident journalist Roman Protasevich, who was detained after his flight was forced to land in Minsk on 23 May

"We need to discuss less the details and more the substance because putting the lives of all passengers at risk is unacceptable," the same sources said.
On arrival at the summit, the vast majority of leaders were in favour of adopting sanctions against Belarus after what Ryanair described as an "act of aviation piracy".

"I think the time for rhetoric and words is over. We need clear actions to change the pattern of behaviour of this very dangerous regime," Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda said on his arrival at the meeting.

In a similar vein, Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas said it was "very important" to propose "strong sanctions" because, she said, Belarus and Russia "only go as far as we let them go".

The Spanish Prime Minister, Pedro Sánchez, considered it "absolutely unacceptable" that Belarus diverted a plane to detain a dissident journalist and therefore defended the adoption of sanctions against Belarus.

Additional sanctions

The heads of state and government also agreed to expand the list of sanctions against Belarus, which currently includes 88 countries and 77 entities, including President Lukashenko and his son and adviser Viktor Lukashenko, who are banned from entering EU territory and have all their property and assets frozen in the EU.

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REUTERS/VASILY FEDOSENKO - Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko

Although the names and new entities will have to be detailed in the future, European Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen said they would all be linked to the forced landing of the plane and the "hijacking" of the journalist.

She also said that Brussels has "frozen" 3 billion euros to Belarus "until it is democratic".

International investigation

Beyond agreeing to sanctions, European leaders asked the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) for an "urgent investigation" into the forced landing of the flight, which took off from Athens but never arrived in Vilnius, its final destination.

The ICAO, in fact, has called a meeting for this coming Thursday.

As EU leaders met in Brussels, a pro-Lukashenko channel on the Telegram messaging app posted the first images of Protasevich since his arrest. The activist said he was in a Minsk prison and claimed he was being treated well, despite visible bruises on his face and deep circles under his eyes.