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EU envoys sign off on Belarus airline ban

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FILE PHOTO: A Boeing 737-800 plane of Belarusian state carrier Belavia takes off at the Domodedovo Airport outside Moscow, Russia May 28, 2021. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov/File Photo

EU ambassadors agreed Friday to close the bloc’s airspace to Belarusian carriers, cementing a decision by leaders to punish Minsk over the forced landing of a Ryanair jet, diplomats said.

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The measure — which comes into effect from Saturday — sees airlines from the EU’s eastern neighbour barred from landing in, taking off from or flying over 27 member states, diplomats told AFP.

EU leaders gave the green light to the airspace ban at a summit last month and urged airlines from the bloc to avoid Belarus.

The move represents the first part of a package of sanctions aimed at hitting the regime of strongman Alexander Lukashenko for intercepting the Athens-to-Vilnius flight and arresting a dissident journalist Roman Protasevich and his girlfriend on May 23.

Leaders also agreed to expand a blacklist of Belarusian officials subject to asset freezes and visa bans and to target key sectors of the country’s economy.

European diplomats are expected to finalise the list of officials and entities to be hit with individual sanctions next week.

That should include around 10 being targeted over the forced landing of the airliner and dozens more being blacklisted over a broader crackdown on opposition protesters since disputed elections in August, diplomats said.

Officials in Brussels are currently drawing up proposals for the broader economic sanctions, which could come into force later in the month and include the key fertiliser industry and bond sales in Europe.

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The EU has already hit 88 Belarusian officials — including Lukashenko — with asset freezes and visa bans over the repression of protests since he claimed victory at polls deemed fraudulent by the West.

The veteran leader has so far shrugged off the impact of the pressure with backing from his key ally Russia.

A leading airline association on Friday criticised the EU ban on flying in Belarusian airspace as “a retrograde and disappointing development”.

“Aviation safety must never be politicised,” the head of the International Air Transport Association, Willie Walsh, said in a statement.

“Two wrongs do not make a right. Politics should never interfere with the safe operation of aircraft and politicians should never use aviation safety as a cover to pursue political or diplomatic agendas.”

The Belarusian regime drew more international condemnation on Friday after state TV aired an interview with a tearful Protasevich that appeared to have been made under duress.

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