Published: Tue, May 25, 2021
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Airlines start shunning Belarus, opposition leader says journalist tortured

Airlines start shunning Belarus, opposition leader says journalist tortured

The EU leaders also directed officials to draw up unspecified new sanctions against Belarus, and to work out a way to ban Belarusian airlines from the bloc's skies.

The EU, along with the United States, Britain and Canada had already imposed asset freezes and travel bans on nearly 90 Belarusian officials, including President Alexander Lukashenko, following an August election that opponents and the West say was a sham. The flight has been using Belarus airspace instead, before turning south toward the Malaysian capital.

Belarus authorities then arrested 26-year-old journalist and activist Raman Pratasevich and his Russian girlfriend, Sofia Sapega.

Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko sparked worldwide outrage by dispatching a fighter jet Sunday to intercept a Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius carrying wanted reporter Roman Protasevich, 26, and his girlfriend Sofia Sapega. Ryanair chief Michael O'Leary said he believed Belarusian security agents had been on the flight and had also disembarked in Minsk. The Belarusian military scrambled a MiG-29 fighter jet in an apparent attempt to encourage the crew to comply with the orders of air-traffic controllers. "It is a reminder of the illegitimacy of the regime claiming authority in Minsk", read a joint statement signed by representatives from several European Union countries, the United Kingdom and the United States, who called for an inquiry by the International Civil Aviation Organization.

"I can say that I have no health problems". Belarus is a former Soviet republic with close ties to the Russian government.

"When it was announced they were going to land in Minsk, Roman stood up, opened the luggage compartment, took luggage and was trying to split things", said a Lithuanian passenger, who gave his name only as Mantas.

Appearing on several channels of the Telegram messaging app, Protasevich, wearing a dark sweatshirt and with his hands tightly clasped in front of him, says he is in a pre-trial detention facility in Minsk and denies having heart problems reported by some on social media.

The Boeing 737-8AS Ryanair passenger plane from Athens is pictured at its destination, Vilnius International Airport in Lithuania, on Sunday after it was intercepted and diverted to Minsk.

Lukashenko and his allies are already under a series of Western sanctions over a brutal crackdown on opposition protests that followed his disputed re-election to a sixth term in August previous year.

"The regime wants to strike terror into the minds of the opposition", said Timothy Ash, a senior emerging markets strategist at London-based Bluebay Asset Management. More than 34,000 people have been arrested for expressing their views against Lukashenko.

Roman Protasevich, 26, fled Belarus in 2019 to the European Union from where he co-ran the Nexta Telegram channels, a key Belarus opposition media that helped mobilise protesters.

Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel declared the Belarusian government's claim that the plane was grounded over a bomb threat by Palestinian militant group Hamas, "completely implausible" and called for Protasevich's immediate release.

In Belarus he faces charges of organizing mass unrest, an offense punishable by up to 15 years in jail.

They also agreed to widen the list of Belarusian individuals they already sanction and called on the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) to urgently investigate Belarus forcing a Ryanair plane to land in Minsk on a Greece-Lithuania flight on Sunday.

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