EU envoys cement Belarus airline ban to punish Minsk

Brussels, Belgium: EU ambassadors decided on Friday to limit the bloc's airspace to Belarusian carriers, solidifying leaders' resolve to penalize Minsk after the forced landing of a Ryanair plane, according to diplomats.

According to officials speaking to AFP, the legislation, which takes effect on Saturday, prohibits planes from the EU's eastern neighbor from landing in, taking off from, or flying over 27 member nations.

At a summit last month, EU leaders granted their approval to the airspace restrictions and advised EU aircraft to avoid Belarus.

The move is the first in a series of penalties intended at punishing President Alexander Lukashenko's administration for stopping a flight from Athens to Vilnius and arresting dissident journalist Roman Protasevich and his girlfriend on May 23.

Leaders also decided to broaden the scope of a blacklist of Belarusian officials vulnerable to asset freezes and travel bans, as well as to target vital economic sectors.

Next week, European diplomats are likely to finalize the list of individuals and entities who would face individual penalties.

According to diplomats, about ten people should be targeted because of the forced landing of the airplane, and dozens more should be banned because of a broader crackdown on opposition protestors following disputed elections in August.

Officials in Brussels are working on proposals for harsher economic penalties, which may take effect later this month and target the crucial fertilizer industry as well as European bond sales.

Since claiming victory in polls regarded fraudulent by the West, the EU has imposed asset freezes and travel restrictions on 88 Belarusian officials, including Lukashenko, for repression of demonstrations.

With support from his main ally Russia, the experienced leader has thus far managed to withstand the pressure.

The EU's restriction on flying in Belarusian airspace was dubbed "a backward and sad development" by a key airline organization on Friday.

"Aviation safety must never be politicized," 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."

On Friday, the Belarusian authorities garnered further international condemnation as state television broadcast an interview with a sobbing Protasevich that appeared to have been conducted under duress.

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