EU, US, UK and Canada pile up sanctions against Belarus over forced diversion of planes

The United States, the European Union, Britain and Canada joined forces on Monday to impose sanctions on several senior officials in Belarus over the forced diversion to Minsk of a passenger plane traveling between two EU countries last month.

Assets freezes and travel bans were also imposed on a number of officials linked to the crackdown on security that the country took some 10 months after President Alexander Lukashenko was returned to power in elections that the EU and others called “fraudulent were labeled, still turned upside down.

“We are united in our deep concern about the Lukashenko regime’s continued attacks on human rights, fundamental freedoms and international law,” the four said in a joint statement.

“We are determined to support the long-suppressed democratic aspirations of the people of Belarus and we stand together to impose charges on the regime for its blatant disregard for international obligations,” they said.

The EU has hit seven people and one entity over the “forced and illegal” landing of the Ryanair plane, which was en route from Greece to Lithuania when it was ordered to stop in Minsk, where authorities arrested Raman Pratasevich, a dissident journalist who is one of the passengers.

The four called on Minsk to cooperate in an international investigation into the incident, immediately release all political prisoners and engage in “comprehensive and genuine political dialogue” with the democratic opposition and civil society.

At a meeting in Luxembourg, EU foreign ministers also prepared a series of economic measures aimed at hitting Lukashenko and his allies. EU leaders are expected to support them at a summit in Brussels on Thursday.

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The EU has gradually stepped up sanctions since Lukashenko – also known as the last dictator in Europe – won a sixth term last August in elections he believes were fraudulent. The measures target people accused of electoral misconduct and responsibility for the police crackdown that followed.

But the bloc of 27 countries has taken a tougher approach since the Ryanair incident and the country’s alleged use of migrants to pressure neighboring Lithuania, which has provided a safe haven for Belarusian opposition figures and one of Lukashenko’s most outspoken. critics.

Among their actions on Monday, ministers imposed travel bans and asset freezes on 78 Belarusian officials and the assets of 8 “entities,” mostly companies, banks or associations. It means that a total of 166 people and 15 entities are now subject to EU restrictive measures.

“This decision has been taken in view of the escalation of serious human rights violations in Belarus and the violent repression of civil society, the democratic opposition and journalists,” a statement said.

Josep Borrell, the EU’s foreign policy chief, who chaired the meeting, said the economic sanctions “will severely damage… the Belarusian economy.”

The measures are likely to include measures against exports of, among other things, potassium, a commonly used ingredient in fertilizers, tobacco industry exports and petroleum products.

“We will no longer only punish individuals. We will now also impose sectoral sanctions – meaning we will now start working on the economic areas of particular importance to Belarus and to the income of the regime,” said German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas.

“We want to make Lukashenko very, very clear that there is no going back,” Maas said.

Maas said the 27 EU countries are united on sanctions: “We are really very, very determined not to budge, not just today – nothing will change in the coming weeks and months,” he said.

Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis said that just a month ago, EU countries had thought it would still be possible to reason with Lukashenko, but that “the mood is different now”.

Landsbergis accused Minsk of “arming” migratory flows. He said that about 500 people are sheltering in Lithuania, most from Iraq, and that Belarusian border guards have brought 30 refugees to the border in recent days. He said Lithuania has limited capacity for them and is building a tent camp.

To kick off Monday’s meeting, ministers held a working breakfast with Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the main opposition candidate who challenged Lukashenko in last year’s elections.