EU leaders agree new sanctions against Belarus after 'unacceptable hijacking' of Ryanair flight

EU leaders agree new sanctions against Belarus after 'unacceptable hijacking' of Ryanair flight

Strongly condemning the act, EU leaders called for the immediate release of journalist Raman Pratasevich and his girlfriend Sofia Sapega. Picture: Euroradio via AP

European leaders have agreed to impose new sanctions against Belarus, its aviation sector and business propping up the Lukashenko regime following the forced landing of a Ryanair flight and detention of journalist Raman Pratasevich.

The EU Council has also called on all EU-based airlines to avoid flying over Belarus.

Taoiseach Micheál Martin attended the meeting in Brussels where leaders agreed to adopt further targeted economic sanctions and invited the High Representative and the Commission to submit proposals without delay to this end.

Strongly condemning the act, leaders called for the immediate release of Mr Pratasevich and his girlfriend Sofia Sapega and has called on the International Civil Aviation Organization to urgently investigate this "unprecedented and unacceptable" incident.

The Council will now move to introduce the necessary measures to ban overflight of EU airspace by Belarusian airlines and prevent access to EU airports of flights operated by such airlines.

Earlier, EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen demanded the release of the Belarusian journalist imprisoned following what she called the "utterly unacceptable hijacking of a Ryanair flight".

"There will be a very strong answer. Because it is outrageous behaviour and Lukashenko and his regime have to understand that this will have severe consequences," President von der Leyen said.

She piled on pressure on the regime to immediately release 26-year-old journalist who was arrested in Minsk along with his girlfriend after their flight from Athens to Vilnius was diverted.

Mr Martin said the hijacking was an act of coercion and requires a firm response from the EU and said the European Union has to send a very clear message that this is unacceptable behaviour.

He described the events as “quite shocking” and said the actions of Belarus put the passengers and crew on the plane, travelling from Athens to Vienna at risk.

“This type of reckless behaviour, coercive behaviour is just absolutely unacceptable,” he said.

He described a statement from the Belarusian authorities insisting that they acted legally as "nonsense".

The Taoiseach said: "We all know what happened here ... don't be hiding behind excuses.

"You forced the plane down to arrest a journalist whose views you don't agree with. You arrested that individual and that is contrary to any sense of human decency or democratic values,” he said.

The decision by authorities in Belarus to force the plane to land in Minsk on Sunday and detain a dissident journalist was a "state-sponsored hijacking", Ryanair group chief executive Michael O'Leary said.

Video of Belarusian journalist appears online amid reports of ill health 

A video of Raman Pratasevich appeared online while EU leaders were meeting in Brussels this evening.

The video was shared on Telegram and has since appeared on Twitter.

It shows Mr Pratasevich sitting in a detention centre in Minsk wearing a dark hoodie with his hands clasped tightly in front of him. He appears to have a mark on his forehead.

In the video, the 26-year-old says: "I am being treated with respect and according to the law. Right now, I continue to co-operate with the police and confess to organising mass protests in Minsk."

The video appeared amid reports the journalist was in hospital being treated for heart issues. In the short video, Mr Pratasevich says he is in good health.

Opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya shared the video online and said Mr Pratasevich is under "physical and moral pressure".

She demanded the immediate release of Mr Pratasevich along with all political prisoners.

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