US is working with the EU on targeted sanctions for Belarus

The US announced Friday that it is working with the EU on punitive sanctions against key members of the government of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko in response to the forced diversion of a flight from Greece to Lithuania to arrest a dissident journalist.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki called for “a credible international investigation into the events of May 23,” which she called “a direct affront to international standards.”

Belarus scrambled a military plane to reroute a Ryanair plane and arrested 26-year-old opposition journalist and activist Roman Protasevich who was on board the flight, sparking global outrage.

Meanwhile, economic sanctions will come into effect on June 3 against nine Belarusian state-owned companies, re-imposed by Washington in April following a crackdown on pro-democracy protests.

The White House added that it was working with the European Union on a list of targeted sanctions against key players in Lukashenko’s regime.

Further US actions against Belarus could target “those who support corruption, human rights abuses and attacks on democracy,” Psaki said.

The White House also issued a “Do Not Travel” warning for Belarus to US citizens, warning US passenger jets to “use extreme caution” when considering flying over Belarusian airspace.

The European Union has also urged EU-based airlines to avoid Belarusian airspace.

However, President Vladimir Putin celebrated Russia’s close ties with Belarus on Friday when he received Lukashenko in the Black Sea resort of Sochi.

While observers watched the talks closely to see how far the Kremlin would go to support the regime, the Russian leader said he was “very happy” to see Lukashenko and agreed that the Western response was a “one-off.” outburst of emotion “was.

‘Rock the boat’

Lukashenko complained that the West wanted to cause unrest in Belarus.

“An attempt is being made to rock the boat to reach last August’s levels,” he said, referring to protests against the regime following a controversial election.

“It’s clear what these Western friends want from us.”

The Belarusian strongman, who arrived with a briefcase, said he wanted to show Putin “some documents” related to the Ryanair incident and thanked him for his support in the latest standoff with the West.

The talks lasted more than five hours, but the results were not disclosed.

In recent years, Lukashenko has had an unstable relationship with Moscow, challenging it against the West and ruling outright unification with Russia.

But after the plane crash with Ryanair, his options seem limited.

Putin and the Belarusian leader have met regularly since August, when historic protests broke out against Lukashenko’s rule spanning nearly three decades.

The 66-year-old waged relentless crackdown on his opponents and increasingly relied on the Russian president amid condemnation by the West.

Several people died during the unrest in Belarus, thousands were detained and hundreds reported torture in prison.

Sunday’s plane diversion was a dramatic escalation, with EU leaders accusing Minsk of essentially hijacking a European flight to arrest Protasevich.

Technical reasons

The overflight ban has led to several cancellations of air travel between Russia and Europe after the Russian authorities rejected plans that would have skipped Belarusian airspace.

Russia insists the cancellations are purely “technical,” but they have expressed concern that Moscow could systematically refuse to land European airlines if they avoid Belarus.

The Kremlin criticized the no-fly time as politically motivated and dangerous, with Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova calling it “utterly irresponsible”.

Josep Borrell, EU foreign policy chief, said the bloc was keeping an eye on whether this was a broader policy of Russia, but Moscow insisted the disruptions were in no way political.

Belarusian authorities claimed to have received a bomb threat against Ryanair’s flight from Athens to Vilnius with the dissident.

Minsk said the country was demanding in the Belarusian capital based on the message it said was sent from a ProtonMail address by the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas.

Protasevich, who helped organize the demonstrations against Lukashenko’s rule last year, was arrested along with 23-year-old Russian girlfriend Sofia Sapega after the plane landed in the city.

‘Braver’

Borrell has said there are proposals “on the table” targeting key sectors of the Belarusian economy, including the oil products and potash sectors.

Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya on Friday urged the EU to be “bolder” and to impose more sanctions on the Minsk regime.

After meeting with Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte in The Hague, Tikhanovskaya said measures discussed by EU countries do not go far enough.

EU chief Ursula von der Leyen warned Lukashenko on Friday that “it is time to change course”.

“No form of oppression, cruelty or coercion will give your authoritarian regime any legitimacy,” she said.

The President of the European Commission also wrote to the opposition, offering a € 3 billion package to support “a democratic Belarus” if Lukashenko steps down.

( Jowharwith AFP)

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