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Russian authorities deny entry to European airlines as EU mulls sanctions on Belarus

Russia’s move, underlining Moscow’s support for Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko’s regime, comes as the European Union mulls fresh sanctions against Belarus following what leaders have described as the state-sanctioned hijacking of a passenger flight over Belarus last Sunday.

Austrian Airlines canceled a scheduled flight from Vienna to Moscow on Thursday, saying in a statement: “A change in flight routes must be approved by the authorities. The Russian authorities did not give us this permit. As a result, Austrian Airlines had to cancel today’s flight from Vienna to Moscow.”

On Wednesday, Air France also canceled its flight to and from Moscow, citing similar reasons.

The EU has already applied a ban on Belarus-registered carriers flying to and from European airports and urged European airlines to avoid Belarus airspace. The Belarus national carrier Belavia has canceled flights to multiple destinations as a result of the EU’s actions, which were introduced Monday.

A Ryanair flight traveling from Athens to the Lithuanian capital Vilnius was intercepted and forced to land in Minsk as it overflew Belarus on Sunday. When it landed opposition activist Roman Protasevich and his Russian companion Sofia Sapega, who were on the flight, were both detained.

Protasevich was one of dozens of Belarusian journalists and activists campaigning in exile against Lukashenko’s 27-year grip. Protasevich, 26, is the founder of the Telegram channel Nexta, which helped mobilize anti-Lukashenko protests, and is on a government wanted list for terrorism.

On Thursday, his parents and Nexta co-founder, Stepan Putilo, implored the Biden administration to take more decisive measures against the “Belarusian regime.”

They stressed that it looked like Protasevich was tortured in a video posted Monday evening to a pro-government social media channel, in which he “confessed” to organizing mass riots.

His supporters believe the video was made under duress. “On the video you can see sings of him beaten up with scar on his neck covered by makeup,” Putilo told the press conference in Warsaw.

Protasevich’s visibly emotional mother, Natalia, also made an impassioned plea to the international community to put pressure on Lukashenko’s administration to “stop torturing the wonderful young bright youths and stop the evil things he’s doing.”

“Please understand that every single day of waiting counts and more innocent lives are being taken. Please save my son and all the other people that are being tortured,” she said, while telling her son to “stay strong, we are working on all possible ways to get you released.”

EU foreign ministers were due to begin discussing which parts of the Belarus economy to hit with sanctions on Thursday, with Luxembourg’s Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn suggesting the country’s potash exports could be targeted, Reuters reports.

Belarus is the world’s second largest producer of potash, which is commonly used as fertilizer, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

Ahead of the meeting in Portugal, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas threatened a spiral of economic sanctions on the eastern European nation, saying the EU expects more than 400 political prisoners in Belarus to be freed.

”It is clear that we will not be satisfied with small sanctions steps, but that we aim to target the economic structure and financial transactions in Belarus significantly with sanctions,” Maas told journalists in the Portuguese capitol, Lisbon.

He went on to say if Lukashenko “does not relent this will only be the start of further sanction rounds.”

”It is important to discuss this topic with Russia as we all know that without Russia and without the Russian support Lukashenko has no future in Belarus,” Maas added.

Lukashenko remained defiant on Wednesday, telling lawmakers in Belarus parliament that the diversion of the Ryanair flight on Sunday was legal, and the ensuing criticism and sanctions on the country was a form of modern hybrid warfare.

“The West has moved from (organizing) revolts to strangling the country,” he said, while sticking to claims that the flight was diverted because of a bomb threat, saying the threat had originated in Switzerland.

Swiss authorities said they had no knowledge of a bomb threat on the Ryanair flight, from Athens to Vilnius, nor did they alert Belarusian authorities about it.

The G7 group of the world’s wealthiest nations on Thursday added its voice to increasing international condemnation of Belarus’s actions on Sunday, calling the move a “serious attack on the rules governing civil aviation,” in a joint statement.

“We will enhance our efforts, including through further sanctions as appropriate, to promote accountability for the actions of the Belarusian authorities,” the statement added.

A photo taken on May 23, 2021 shows a Boeing 737-8AS Ryanair passenger plane from Athens, Greece, that was intercepted and diverted to Minsk on the same day by Belarus authorities

More cancellations

Belavia canceled flights to eight countries, it said in a statement. Flights to a number of destinations, including Amsterdam, Berlin, Barcelona and the Russian city of Kaliningrad, would be canceled until October 30 due to several countries imposing flight bans on it, Belavia said.

Meanwhile, Air France canceled a flight between Paris and Moscow on Wednesday after failing to receive Russian authorization to bypass the Belarusian airspace, the airline said in a statement.

“Consequently, the return flight AF1155 is also cancelled,” the airline said, adding that customers have been offered a postponement or refunds.

'All Belarusians are hostages to Lukashenko's regime,' say citizens now cut off from Europe

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov suggested to reporters on Wednesday that the Russian government believed Belarusian officials’ reasoning for instructing the Ryanair flight to land in Minsk.

On Thursday, he told reporters that the issue of Sapega, the detained Russian national in Minsk, will likely be raised when Lukashenko meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday.

Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovksya said Wednesday that Lukashenko was turning Belarus into the North Korea of Europe and predicted more protests against his long rule this summer. She also criticized the EU position on Belarus, saying its previous “wait and see” strategy “towards the Belarusian regime doesn’t work. The EU approach of gradually elevated pressure on Lukashenko’s regime hasn’t managed to change his behavior and only led to a growing sense of impunity and massive repressions.”

Lukashenko has led Belarus since 1994 and took his sixth consecutive term last year after an election period marred by a brutal crackdown on mass protests against the leader. Belarusian authorities detained political opposition figures, protesters and activists.

CNN investigations have found cases where Belarusian authorities have used torture against detained protesters.

Anna Chernova, Schams Elwazer, Zahid Mahmood and Hannah Yahorava contributed to this report.

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