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The European Union is reflecting on new sanctions against Belarus as more planes are canceled

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The EU has already enforced a ban on airlines registered in Belarus flying to and from European airports and urged European airlines to avoid Belarusian airspace. Belarusian national carrier Belavia has canceled flights to multiple destinations as a result of EU actions, which were unveiled on Monday.

A Ryanair flight traveling from Athens to the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius, was instructed to land in Minsk while flying over Belarus on Sunday. When he landed opposition activist Roman Protasevich and his fellow Russian Sofia Sapega, who were on the flight, were arrested.

Protasevich was one of dozens of Belarusian journalists and activists campaigning in exile against the government of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko. He is the founder of the Telegram Nexta channel, which helped mobilize protests against Lukashenko, and is on a list of governments wanted for terrorism.

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

They stressed that it appeared that Protasevich was tortured in a video posted Monday evening on an official social government channel, in which “he confessed“to organize mass riots.

His followers believe the video was made under duress. “In the video you can see songs of him being beaten with a scar on his neck covered in makeup,” Putilo told the Warsaw press conference.

Protasevich’s visibly emotional mother Natalia also made a plea to the international community to pressure the Lukashenko administration to “stop torturing the wonderful and brilliant young people and stop the bad things it is doing.”

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

EU foreign ministers were due to start discussing which parts of the Belarusian economy should be sanctioned on Thursday, and Luxembourg’s foreign minister, Jean Asselborn, suggested that potash exports could be targeted. of the country, according to Reuters.

Belarus is the world’s second largest producer of potash, commonly used as a fertilizer, according to the United States 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 to be released. political prisoners in Belarus.

“It is clear that we will not be satisfied with small sanctions, but that we intend to guide the economic structure and financial transactions in Belarus with sanctions,” Maas told reporters in the Portuguese capital, Lisbon.

He said that if Lukashenko “does not give in, this will only be the start of new rounds of sanctions.”

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

Lukashenko continued to challenge himself on Wednesday, telling lawmakers in the Belarusian parliament that diverting Ryanair’s flight on Sunday was legal and that criticism and sanctions in the country were a form of modern hybrid warfare.

“The West has gone from (organizing) revolutions to suffocating the country,” he said, while maintaining claims that the flight was diverted due to a bomb threat, saying the threat originated in Switzerland. .

Swiss authorities said they were unaware of a bomb threat on Ryanair’s flight from Athens to Vilnius, nor did they alert Belarusian authorities.

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

More cancellations

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

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

“As a result, return flight AF1155 is also canceled,” said the airline, which added that customers have received a deferral or refund.

All Belarusians are hostages of the Lukashenko regime, & # 39; they say citizens are now out of Europe

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

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

The leader of the Belarusian opposition, Svetlana Tikhanovksya he said Wednesday that Lukashenko was turning Belarus into North Korea and predicted more protests against his long rule this summer. He also criticized the EU’s position on Belarus, saying its previous “wait and see” strategy towards the Belarusian regime is not working. The EU’s approach to the gradually increasing pressure on the Lukashenko regime has failed to change its behavior and has only led to a growing sense of impunity and mass repression. “

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

CNN investigations have found cases in which 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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