BRUSSELS (BLOOMBERG) – European Union leaders kicked off the process for adding more sanctions against Belarus and imposed an effective flight blockade on the country over the forced landing of a Ryanair jet and the arrest of a dissident journalist.
On the first of two days of summit talks in Brussels, the leaders asked the European Commission to propose Belarusian officials to be added to an existing blacklist and their ministers to come up with broader measures to target businesses and entire sectors of the country’s economy.
A new round of sanctions could target the financial interests of President Alexander Lukashenko and his close family and associates, as well as businesses, an EU official said.
The leaders also vowed to ban Belarusian Airlines from entering EU airspace and asked EU-based carriers to avoid flying over Belarus.
The measures followed the forced landing of a Ryanair jet in Minsk and the arrest of 26-year-old Raman Pratasevich who was on board the flight from Athens to Vilnius. The leaders called on Mr Lukashenko to release the journalist and on the International Civil Aviation Organisation to investigate the incident.
The leaders discussed the crisis, as well as relations with Russia, with mobile phones and other electronic devices banned to ensure their talks remained confidential.
At the same time, Mr Pratasevich appeared in a video posted by state-owned media channels.
Speaking in monotone from what appeared to be a jail in Minsk, Mr Pratasevich said that he is cooperating with the investigation into his activities and providing evidence that he sought to foment unrest in the country.
The circumstances of the video were unclear and it’s unknown whether he was coerced into giving the statement.
Arriving for the summit, German Chancellor Angela Merkel called the Belarusian actions “without precedent” and said the authorities’ explanations had no credibility.
Ms Ursula von der Leyen, head of the EU’s executive arm, described it as a “hijacking” and said a 3 billion-euro (S$4.87 billion) EU aid package is “frozen until Belarus turns democratic.”
But European governments could struggle to open direct communication channels with Minsk. Mr Lukashenko has in the past year refused to take calls from EU leaders, according to two people familiar with the matter. Nato ambassadors will also discuss the incident on Tuesday.
The White House demanded an international investigation of the forced landing, calling it “a brazen affront” by Lukashenko’s government.
“This was a shocking act, diverting a flight between two EU member states for the apparent purpose of arresting a journalist,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki told reporters.
Russia sided with its close ally. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov defended Minsk’s explanation as “reasonable.”
In a public show of support, President Vladimir Putin is reportedly to meet Mr Lukashenko later this week, for the third time this year.