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The leaders of the EU countries prepared to bring in action sanctions on Belarus and cut off its aviation links on Monday, furious after it scrambled a warplane to intercept a Ryanair aircraft and arrest a dissident journalist Roman Protasevich, an act one official denounced as ‘state piracy’.
U.S. President Joe Biden on Monday condemned Belarus for its actions and said he had asked his advisers to give him options to hold those responsible to account.
U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan, in a call on Monday with exiled Belarus opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, said the United States had “strong support for the demands of the Belarusian people for democracy, human rights, and fundamental freedoms,” the White House said.
European Union leaders meeting in Brussels called for Belarusian airlines to be banned from the 27-nation bloc’s airspace and urged EU-based carriers to avoid flying over the former Soviet republic, according to a joint statement. 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.
“The reaction should be swift and be severe,” Belgian Prime Minister Alexander de Croo told journalists ahead of the EU summit.
Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney, using language that was echoed by a number of other EU countries, said: “This was effectively aviation piracy, state sponsored.”
The EU and other Western countries also called for the release of Protasevich, who was detained when the plane landed. His social media feed from exile has been one of the last remaining independent outlets for news about Belarus since a mass crackdown on dissent last year.
Some airlines and countries did not wait for guidance on how to respond to the diversion of the Ryanair flight.
Belarusian opposition blogger and journalist Roman Protasevich, detained when a Ryanair plane was forced to land in Minsk, is seen in a pre-trial detention facility.
A Ryanair aircraft, which was carrying Belarusian opposition blogger and activist Roman Protasevich and diverted to Belarus, where authorities detained him, lands at Vilnius Airport in Vilnius, Lithuania May 23, 2021.
Britain said it was instructing British airlines to cease flights over Belarus and that it would suspend the air permit for Belarus’s national carrier, Belavia, with immediate effect. KLM, the Dutch arm of carrier Air France KLM (AIRF.PA), will temporarily halt flights, Dutch news agency ANP reported.
Still, the options for Western retaliation appear limited.
ICAO has no regulatory power, and the EU has no authority over flights taking off and landing in Belarus or flying over its airspace, apart from direct flights that originate or land in Europe.
Belarus lies on the flight path of routes within Europe and between Europe and Asia, and skirting Belarus would slow flights down and cost airlines money.
The EU and the United States imposed several rounds of financial sanctions against Minsk last year, which had no effect on the behavior of authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko, who withstood mass demonstrations against his rule after a disputed election.