UPDATED: EU agrees additional sanctions on Belarus after forced Ryanair landing

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The European Union on Wednesday agreed additional sanctions on Belarus in response to the forced landing of a Ryanair flight in Minsk and the arrest of a dissident journalist on board in May, an EU diplomat said.

The sanctions, approved by EU ambassadors and to be adopted by the bloc’s foreign ministers at a meeting on Monday, target seven individuals with links to the Belarus aviation sector, according to the diplomat.

EU ambassadors also signed off on a fourth package of asset freezes and travel bans, to be imposed on more than 70 individuals in response to last year’s contested presidential election, the diplomat said. These measures were already being prepared when the Ryanair jet was forced to land on May 23. 

Earlier, Ryanair its chief executive said that Ryanair does not support a ban on Belarusian airspace in the long term, and called on international authorities to secure assurances from the country that there would be no repeat of last month’s forced landing.

Belarus scrambled a warplane to force a Ryanair flight to land in Minsk on May 23. The plane was carrying an opposition journalist who was then arrested, prompting punitive measures against Belarus in response.

Belarusian carriers are now banned from flying over European Union and UK territory, while EU and British authorities issued a safety directive saying their aircraft should avoid Belarusian air space unless in an emergency.

Ryanair boss Michael O’Leary told a British parliamentary committee that while he supported those measures, the aviation industry depended in the long term on unrestricted access to all airspace and that this must be restored.

“We need to have an outcome where the European and the UK authorities, hopefully assisted by international partners, receive appropriate assurances from the Belarusian, and or Russian authorities, that this will never happen again,” he said.

Short-term sanctions were necessary to deter other states from copycat behaviour, he added, but in the long term the politicisation of airspace was not the answer as it would hurt the aviation industry and international connectivity.

“The freedom to overfly states is something that we have perhaps taken for granted for the last 70-80 years,” O’Leary told the lawmakers. “We must restore it as quickly as possible.”

The United Nations’ International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) is investigating the forced-landing incident and due to report back in two weeks.

Photo: People attend a rally in support of the Belarusian Opposition to demonstrate against police brutality and the presidential election results in Minsk, Belarus. EPA-EFE/STR