Belarus: ‘We're now at a new level of confrontation’ warns expert
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EU leaders yesterday called for airlines based in the 27-member bloc to halt flights over Belarusian air space, which is along a major corridor connecting Europe and Asia and earns money from overflight rights.
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.
If all such measures are fully implemented, flights may soon be able to reach Belarus only by passing over its eastern border with its close ally Russia.
The decision was unanimously agreed upon after Belarus forced down a jetliner and arrested a dissident journalist.
But the measures were criticised by EU expert Wolfgang Munchau, who said the bloc struggled to adequately deal with rogue regimes.
The Director of Euro Intelligence said: “If the problem is a security threat, what would a flight ban achieve?
“The fact is that the EU has no strategy to deal with rogue regimes that threaten it.”
Ahead of the EU chief’s decision on Monday, Mr Munchau had warned the incident could lead to more dangerous euroscepticism across the bloc.
He said: “If the EU fails to respond to the Belarus crisis adequately, it will have to confront a new form of euroscepticism – one that opposes it on moral grounds.”
Belarusian state media have reported President Alexander Lukashenko personally ordered the flight to be intercepted. Belarus says it was responding to a bomb scare that later proved to be a false alarm.
The UN agency ICAO has said the incident may have violated the foundational treaty governing international civil aviation, the 1944 Chicago Convention.
At least three other people disembarked the flight in Minsk, assumed by Western countries to have been spies who had helped coordinate an operation to capture journalist Roman Protasevich.
One Lithuanian official said the three passengers who disembarked included two Belarusian citizens and one Greek citizen.
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Belarusian state TV on Monday broadcast interviews with the trio.
Lukashenko, whose security services crushed months of pro-democracy demonstrations last year after an election opponents said was rigged, has so far shrugged off Western sanctions, which mostly consist of blacklists barring various officials from travelling or doing business in the United States and EU.
Politicians in the West have called for tougher measures that might isolate the country from the international financial system or bar its exports.
But they have failed to influence the behaviour of Lukashenko, who enjoys unwavering financial and security support from Russia, which considers the Belarusian frontier with NATO its first line of defence.
Russia has said it is still too early to comment on the Ryanair incident, while accusing Western countries of hypocrisy and noting that a Bolivian presidential plane was diverted to Austria in 2013 after reports it was carrying US intelligence leaker Edward Snowden.
Moscow has also denied suggestions by Western politicians that it may have assisted its ally Belarus in the operation.
A video released overnight showed 26-year-old Mr Protasevich confessing to having organised anti-government demonstrations. On Sunday he was pulled off the passenger plane that was forced to land in the Belarusian capital Minsk.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the video made for distressing viewing and exiled opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya said that the video left no doubt that Protasevich had been tortured.
In the video released overnight, Mr Protasevich can be seen seated at a desk in a dark hooded sweatshirt.
“I can state that I don’t have any health issues, including diseases of the heart or any other organs. Police officers are treating me properly and according to the law,” he says. “Also, I now continue to cooperate with the investigation and have confessed to organising mass protests in Minsk.”
A number of his allies swiftly wrote on social media that the video was evidence that he was under coercion.
During Lukashenko’s crackdown on dissent since last August’s presidential election, nearly all opposition figures have been driven into exile or jailed, many on charges of organising demonstrations, which the government describes as terrorism.
Lukashenko has denied electoral fraud.
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