Pope Sends Money For Migrants On Poland-Belarus Border

Pope Francis holds his general audience at the Paul VI Hall at the Vatican on January 5, 2022 (Photo by Filippo MONTEFORTE / AFP)

 

Pope Francis has pledged 100,000 euros ($114,000) to help migrants blocked on the border between Poland and Belarus, the Vatican announced Tuesday.

The money includes support for the Catholic charity Caritas Poland “to deal with the migration emergency on the border between the two countries”, it said.

Since last summer, thousands of migrants — most of them from the Middle East, including war-torn Syria — have crossed or attempted to cross the Polish frontier from Belarus and enter the European Union.

READ ALSO: China Orders Overseas Mail Disinfection Over Omicron Fears

The pope has made defending migrants a priority of his papacy, and has repeatedly called on EU leaders to be more welcoming to those arriving at its borders.

The Vatican said the pope had also pledged 100,000 euros for relief efforts in the Philippines, following the typhoon in December.

Dozens Of Migrants Held As EU Readies Belarus Sanctions

A group of migrants gather to receive humanitarian aid in a camp near the Belarusian-Polish border in the Grodno region on November 13, 2021. (Photo by Leonid SHCHEGLOV / BELTA / AFP) / Belarus OUT

 

Dozens of migrants have been detained after crossing into Poland from Belarus, Warsaw said Sunday, warning of a possible larger breakthrough ahead of an EU meeting to widen sanctions on Belarus.

Police said on Twitter that 50 migrants had crossed the heavily-guarded EU and NATO border near the village of Starzyna “by force” on Saturday.

They were all later detained, the border guard said, adding that they could see signs of “a bigger attempt at crossing the border today”.

Thousands of migrants from the Middle East are camped out on the EU-Belarus border, creating a stand-off between the EU and US on one side and Belarus and its ally Russia on the other.

Western countries accuse Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko’s regime of deliberately engineering the crisis by encouraging migrants to come to Belarus and then taking them to the border.

Belarus denies the charges and blames the West.

“If someone thinks that Lukashenko or Belarusians will flinch, then this will not happen,” Lukashenko, referring to himself in the third person, said in an interview released on Saturday.

Aid agencies say at least 10 migrants have died so far and have warned of a humanitarian crisis unfolding as temperatures drop below freezing, urging a de-escalation to help the migrants.

In the biggest camp, near the village of Bruzgi in Belarus, Belarusian authorities say there are 2,000 people, including pregnant women and children.

Belarusian authorities have delivered aid including tents and heaters — a move that could make the camp a semi-permanent presence on the border.

– ‘Provocation’ on border? –

Poland has refused to allow the migrants in and has accused Belarus of preventing them from leaving.

Interior Minister Mariusz Kaminski on Saturday said a rumour was being spread among the migrants that on Monday Poland would allow them through and coaches would come from Germany to pick them up.

“A provocation is being prepared,” Kaminski said.

The government has sent a text message to all foreign mobile phones along the border saying: “It’s a total lie and nonsense! Poland will continue to protect its border with Belarus.

“Those who spread such rumours seek to encourage the migrants to storm the border, which may lead to dangerous developments,” the text message reads.

EU foreign ministers are also due to meet on Monday to widen the sanctions already imposed on Belarus for its crackdown on opponents of Lukashenko, who has ruled the country for nearly 30 years.

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said ministers would allow sanctions on anyone “taking part in the trafficking of migrants” in Belarus, including airlines, travel agencies and officials.

“Lukashenko got it wrong. He thought that by acting in this way he would twist our arm and force us to cancel the sanctions. The opposite is happening,” Borrell told Journal du Dimanche, a French weekly.

Following pressure from EU diplomats, Turkey has now banned Iraqis, Syrians and Yemenis from flying to Belarus and private Syrian carrier Cham Wings Airlines is also halting flights to Minsk.

Putin Tells EU To Talk To Belarus If It Wants To Resolve Migrant Crisis

Russia's President Vladimir Putin delivers a speech during a United Russia ruling party's congress in Moscow on August 24, 2021. Grigory SYSOYEV / SPUTNIK / AFP
FILE: Russia’s President Vladimir Putin delivers a speech during a United Russia ruling party’s congress in Moscow on August 24, 2021. Grigory SYSOYEV / SPUTNIK / AFP

 

Russian President Vladimir Putin told the European Union on Thursday it needs to start talks with Belarus if it hopes to resolve a crisis over hundreds of migrants trapped on the border with Poland.

Concern is growing for the about 2,000 migrants, mainly Kurds from the Middle East, who are living in a tent camp on the border between Belarus and Poland in near-freezing temperatures.

Poland is refusing to allow the migrants to cross, accusing Minsk of luring them to Belarus to send across the border in revenge for sanctions.

The EU has so far refused any direct contacts with Belarus’s strongman leader Alexander Lukashenko, who on Thursday warned that any new sanctions would be met with a response, including potentially cutting off natural gas transit to Europe.

READ ALSO: Belarus Threatens To Cut Off Gas Supply To Europe

In his second phone call with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in as many days, Putin “spoke in favour of restoring contacts between EU states and Belarus in order to resolve this problem,” the Kremlin said in a statement.

Merkel had called Putin on Wednesday to ask him to “use his influence” on Lukashenko to end the crisis.

The EU cut off contacts with Lukashenko and imposed sanctions after a heavy crackdown on the opposition following a disputed presidential election last year.

The bloc is expected to decide next week to impose new sanctions for human trafficking because of the migrant crisis.

Lukashenko said Thursday that Minsk “must respond” if the EU takes new measures, raising the possibility of cutting off transit through a pipeline that carries Russian natural gas through Belarus to Poland and further into Europe.

“We are heating Europe, and they are threatening us,” he said. “And what if we halt natural gas supplies?”

This combination created on November 10, 2021 of file pictures shows (L-R) Russian President Vladimir Putin (on July 4, 2019 in Rome), the President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko (on November 12, 2019 in Vienna) and Poland's Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki (on February 20, 2020 in Brussels). JOE KLAMAR, Tiziana FABI, kenzo tribouillard / AFP
This combination created on November 10, 2021 of file pictures shows (L-R) Russian President Vladimir Putin (on July 4, 2019 in Rome), the President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko (on November 12, 2019 in Vienna) and Poland’s Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki (on February 20, 2020 in Brussels). JOE KLAMAR, Tiziana FABI, kenzo tribouillard / AFP

 

Opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya said Lukashenko was bluffing about cutting off gas and urged the EU to stand firm.

“It would be more harmful for him, for Belarus, than for the European Union and I can suppose it’s bluffing,” Tikhanovskaya, who fled Belarus after claiming victory in last year’s vote, told AFP in Berlin.

“We are grateful for the principled position of European countries that they are not going to communicate with (an) illegitimate person,” she said.

The UN Security Council was to meet later Thursday for emergency talks on the crisis.

‘New kind of war’

Poland has deployed 15,000 troops along the border, put up a fence topped with barbed wire and approved construction of a wall on the frontier with Belarus.

In a statement released for Poland’s Independence Day on Thursday, Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said his country was facing a “new kind of war” whose “ammunition is civilians”.

Migrants have been trying to cross the border for months but the crisis came to a head when hundreds made a concerted effort on Monday and were pushed back by Polish border guards.

They set up a camp on the border, sheltering in tents and burning wood from local forests to keep warm, blocked by Polish guards behind razor-wire.

At least 10 migrants have died on the border in recent months, seven of them on the Polish side, according to Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza.

Teams from the UN refugee agency, the International Organization for Migration and the Red Cross visited the camp on Thursday to check on conditions and deliver aid, including hygiene kits and diapers.

“Priorities now are to prevent loss of life and move people to safer locations in Belarus,” UNHCR chief Filippo Grandi said on Twitter.

Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis told reporters his country was pushing for an evacuation corridor from the border to the Belarusian city of Grodno, which has an airport that could be used to send people back to their home countries.

Journalists and charity workers have been banned from the immediate border area by Polish authorities under state of emergency rules.

Fear in Polish town

Residents in the Polish town of Sokolka near the border said they were worried by the growing tensions but voiced support for the Polish government’s tough stance.

“I’m afraid of the migrants getting through and what the consequences would be,” said Henryk Lenkiewicz, a 67-year-old pensioner walking by a community noticeboard in the town centre.

Poland has accused Putin of masterminding the crisis, a claim the Kremlin has dismissed as “irresponsible”.

Moscow and Minsk have close economic, political and military ties and Russian air force planes have been flying patrols over Belarus this week, including two Tu-160 strategic bombers on Thursday that were accompanied by Belarusian Su-30S fighter jets.

Migrant Crisis: Belarus Threatens To Cut Off Gas Supply To Europe

 This combination created of file pictures on November 10, 2021 shows the President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko (L, on November 12, 2019 in Vienna) and Poland's Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki (on June 24, 2021 in Brussels). JOE KLAMAR, JOHN THYS / AFP
This combination created of file pictures on November 10, 2021 shows the President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko (L, on November 12, 2019 in Vienna) and Poland’s Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki (on June 24, 2021 in Brussels). JOE KLAMAR, JOHN THYS / AFP

 

Belarus’s strongman leader Alexander Lukashenko on Thursday threatened to cut off gas to Europe in retaliation for any new sanctions imposed over the migrant crisis on his country’s border with EU member Poland.

“If they impose additional sanctions on us… we must respond,” Lukashenko told government officials in comments released by the presidency.

“We are warming Europe, and they are threatening us,” he said, pointing out that Russia’s Yamal-Europe pipeline transits through Belarus to Poland.

“And what if we halt natural gas supplies?”

READ ALSO: Hundreds Of Migrants Trapped In Belarus-Poland Border Standoff

Lukashenko also claimed that migrants on the border had been receiving weapons and explosives from conflict-riven eastern Ukraine for the past two days.

“Why are weapons coming here? They want to stage a provocation,” Lukashenko said, adding that the Belarusian military should be vigilant.

Migrants have been trying to cross the Belarus-Poland border for months but the crisis reached a new level when hundreds made a concerted effort this week and were pushed back by Polish borders guards.

Western governments accuse Lukashenko’s government of luring them to his country and sending them to cross into Poland in retaliation for previous sanctions over Minsk’s crackdown on the opposition.

On Wednesday, EU chief Ursula von der Leyen said the EU would hit Belarus with fresh sanctions next week over the crisis.

Poland has accused Minsk of “state terrorism” for using intimidation to force migrants to breach the border.

Belarus has in turn accused Poland of violating international norms by blocking the migrants and beating them back with violence.

Lukashenko said there were a lot of children and pregnant women among the refugees, adding they should receive necessary help.

“There are a lot of women who are eight or nine months pregnant,” he said. “When they are due of course we’ll take them to the hospital and look after them further.”

AFP

Hundreds Of Migrants Trapped In Belarus-Poland Border Standoff

A picture taken on November 9, 2021 shows migrants at the Belarusian-Polish border in the Grodno region. Leonid Shcheglov / BELTA / AFP
A picture taken on November 9, 2021 shows migrants at the Belarusian-Polish border in the Grodno region. Leonid Shcheglov / BELTA / AFP

 

Hundreds of desperate migrants were trapped in freezing weather on the border between Belarus and EU and NATO member Poland on Tuesday, with Warsaw accusing the regime in Minsk of using them to threaten European security.

Western critics have for months said Belarus’s strongman leader Alexander Lukashenko is luring migrants from the Middle East to his country to send them across the border, in retaliation for European sanctions.

Belarus denies the claim and accuses Poland of violating human rights by refusing to allow the migrants in.

The tense situation has raised fears of a confrontation on the border, where armed troops from both countries are deployed.

READ ALSO: EU Calls For New Sanctions On Belarus Over Influx Of Migrants

A defiant Lukashenko said he was not looking for an armed confrontation but also would not back down.

“We are not seeking a fight… I am not a madman, I understand perfectly well where it can lead,” Lukashenko said in an interview released by state news agency Belta.

“But we will not kneel.”

The crisis came to a head on Monday when hundreds of migrants marched to the border in a bid to cross but were blocked by rows of Polish police, soldiers and border guards behind barbed wire.

Poland and Belarus said Tuesday that between 3,000 to 4,000 migrants were now in an improvised camp on the border, near the Polish village of Kuznica.

Journalists have been blocked from the area, but videos released by Belarusian and Polish authorities showed the migrants massed along the razor-wire, huddling by fires and in tents as temperatures hovered around freezing.

‘Hybrid attack’

Poland said Belarus was using the migrants as a weapon, insisting it would not open its border.

“Sealing the Polish border is our national interest. But today the stability and security of the entire EU is at stake,” Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said on Twitter.

“This hybrid attack of Lukashenko’s regime is aimed at all of us. We will not be intimidated and will defend peace in Europe with our partners from NATO and EU.”

A picture taken on November 8, 2021 shows migrants at the Belarusian-Polish border in the Grodno region. Leonid Shcheglov / BELTA / AFP
A picture taken on November 8, 2021 shows migrants at the Belarusian-Polish border in the Grodno region. Leonid Shcheglov / BELTA / AFP

 

But Belarus said Warsaw’s treatment of the migrants would be a “litmus test” of its commitment to international norms and cautioned against any “provocations”.

“We would like to warn the Polish side in advance against any provocations directed against the Republic of Belarus to justify illegal use of force against disadvantaged, unarmed people, among whom there are many children and women,” the foreign ministry in Minsk said in a statement.

EU urges new sanctions

The Belarusian defence ministry said Poland had deployed 10,000 military personnel to the border without giving prior warning to Belarusian authorities, in what it said was a violation of joint security agreements.

Poland’s defence ministry tweeted video footage showing what it said appeared to be a “large group of Belarusian officers” approaching the vicinity of the migrant camp.

The European Union called for new sanctions on Belarus, on top of those already applied over Lukashenko’s heavy crackdown on the opposition after a disputed election last year.

EU diplomats in Brussels told AFP the bloc was already working on moves to expand existing sanctions to include those involved in trafficking migrants, including potentially airlines and travel agencies.

The EU said it was also pushing more than a dozen countries, mainly in the Middle East and Africa, to prevent their nationals leaving for Belarus.

“This is part of the inhuman and really gangster style approach of the Lukashenko regime,” a European Commission spokesman, Peter Stano, told journalists.

In Moscow, Russian Foreign Sergei Lavrov blamed Western military “adventures” in the Middle East for prompting migrants to flee the region in the first place.

“The main responsibility for resolving the crisis with migrants lies of course with those who created the conditions,” Lavrov told reporters.

Moscow is Belarus’s main international backer and the Kremlin said Tuesday that President Vladimir Putin had “exchanged opinions on the situation with refugees” in a phone call with Lukashenko.

Some migrants who made it into Poland told AFP last month that they had been trapped in the woods for a week, with Belarus refusing to allow them to return to Minsk and fly home, while Poland would not let them cross to make asylum claims.

The Belarusian border guard service said Tuesday that the migrants in the camp were mostly Kurds, that their physical and mental condition was “extremely poor” and they lacked water, food and the means to wash themselves.

“The situation is aggravated by the large number of pregnant women and infants among the refugees, who must spend the night on the ground in negative temperatures,” it said.

AFP

EU Calls For New Sanctions On Belarus Over Influx Of Migrants

A picture taken on November 8, 2021 shows migrants at the Belarusian-Polish border in the Grodno region. Leonid Shcheglov / BELTA / AFP
A picture taken on November 8, 2021 shows migrants at the Belarusian-Polish border in the Grodno region. Leonid Shcheglov / BELTA / AFP

 

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen on Monday called on member states to impose new sanctions against Belarus, which she blamed for an influx of migrants at the Polish border. 

The use “of migrants for political purposes is unacceptable”, she said in a statement, adding that the EU would also look at how to sanction “third-country airlines” that bring migrants to Belarus.

“We will not hesitate to adopt sanctions if necessary against companies and countries that play into the hands of smugglers,” EU diplomatic chief Josep Borrell warned in mid-October.

READ ALSO: Obama Says Youth ‘Right To Be Frustrated’ At Climate Inaction

“The migrants are provided with visas, plane tickets and an aircraft is ready to transport them to Minsk from where they are taken to the borders of Lithuania, Latvia and Poland,” he said.

Commission Vice-President Margaritis Schinas will visit “the main countries of origin and transit in the coming days to ensure that they act to prevent their own nationals from falling into the trap set by the Belarusian authorities,” the statement said.

The EU has accused Belarusian strongman Alexander Lukashenko of orchestrating a wave of migrants and refugees, mainly from the Middle East, in retaliation for sanctions imposed by Brussels for his regimes crackdown on the opposition.

Lukashenko denies the accusation.

Warsaw expressed concern on Monday about a possible armed attempt to cross its border from Belarus, where thousands of migrants are massed.

To stem the illegal migrant crossings from Belarus, the EU is preparing tougher economic sanctions against Minsk.

An initial round of sanctions imposed in June hit the key sectors of potash, oil and tobacco. EU sanctions also target 166 Belarusian regime officials, including Lukashenko and two of his sons.

Sanctions require unanimous approval from all 27 EU members.

 

AFP

UK Joins US, EU, Canada In Fresh Sanctions On Belarus

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko speaks during his meeting with parliamentarians, members of Constitutional Commission and representatives of public administration bodies in Minsk on May 26, 2021. (Photo by Maxim GUCHEK / BELTA / AFP)

 

Britain on Monday said it had joined the United States, Canada and the European Union in imposing fresh sanctions on Belarus after the detention of an opposition journalist.

The government said it had imposed travel bans and asset freezes against “senior-ranking officials” in President Alexander Lukashenko’s regime, as well as oil firm BNK (UK) Ltd.

“The sanctions send a strong signal to the Belarusian authorities that the UK will not tolerate those who repress human rights coming to the UK or using our financial institutions,” the foreign office said in a statement.

Britain said its sanctions were imposed separate to the EU, which it left last year, but in parallel to those announced by Washington, Ottawa and Brussels.

It follows outrage at the diversion in May of a Ryanair flight, which was forced to land in Minsk, upon which Roman Protasevich and his girlfriend were detained.

The British foreign office said the restrictions on BNK (UK) Ltd, which exports Belarusian oil products, would “significantly impact one of the regime’s main revenue streams”.

Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said: “The Lukashenko regime endangered the lives of airline passengers and crew in a shameful ruse to snatch Roman Protasevich.

“We will hold the regime to account in coordination with our allies including through further banning travel, freezing assets and cutting off oil export revenue streams.”

In September last year, Britain announced sanctions on human rights grounds against Lukashenko himself, his son and senior figures in the Belarusian government.

AFP

Defiant Lukashenko Defends Plane Diversion, Blasts Critics

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko speaks during his meeting with parliamentarians, members of Constitutional Commission and representatives of public administration bodies in Minsk on May 26, 2021. (Photo by Maxim GUCHEK / BELTA / AFP)

 

A defiant President Alexander Lukashenko on Wednesday defended Belarus’s diversion of a European flight and arrest of a dissident on board, lashing out at critics at home and abroad.

In his first public statement since the Ryanair flight was diverted and opposition journalist Roman Protasevich arrested on Sunday, Lukashenko dismissed the international outcry the incident provoked.

“I acted lawfully to protect our people,” Lukashenko said in an address to parliament, the Belta state-run news agency reported.

The criticism was nothing more than another attempt by his opponents to undermine his rule, he said.

“Our ill-wishers at home and abroad have changed their methods of attacking the state,” Lukashenko said.

“They have crossed many red lines and crossed boundaries of common sense and human morality.”

READ ALSO: Myanmar Excluded From WHO Annual Meeting

Lukashenko — often dubbed “Europe’s last dictator” — is facing some of the strongest international pressure of his 26-year rule of ex-Soviet Belarus.

The strongman and his allies are already under a series of Western sanctions over a brutal crackdown on mass protests that followed his disputed re-election to a sixth term last August.

European leaders are now accusing authorities in Minsk of essentially hijacking the passenger flight, and they agreed this week to cut air links with Belarus and told airliners to avoid the country’s airspace.

– Video ‘confessions’ –

The Belarusian opposition has called for further and stronger measures, and the UN Security Council was set to meet behind closed doors later on Wednesday.

The Athens-to-Vilnius flight was diverted over a supposed bomb scare, with Lukashenko scrambling a MiG-29 fighter jet to accompany the aircraft.

Belarus has released a transcript of communications between Minsk air traffic control and the Ryanair flight, in which the crew was told “you have a bomb on board” and urged to land in Minsk.

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko speaks during his meeting with parliamentarians, members of Constitutional Commission and representatives of public administration bodies in Minsk on May 26, 2021. – Alexander Lukashenko said on May 26 that “attacks” on the country have crossed “red lines” after the diversion of a Ryanair flight over Belarusian airspace sparked a global outcry. (Photo by Maxim GUCHEK / BELTA / AFP)

 

Lukashenko on Wednesday denied that the fighter jet had forced the airliner to land, calling such claims an “absolute lie”.

Protasevich — the 26-year-old co-founder of opposition Telegram channel Nexta — and his Russian girlfriend Sofia Sapega were arrested after the plane landed.

Protasevich, who had been living between Poland and Lithuania, appeared in a video on Monday in which he confessed to helping to organise mass unrest, a charge that could land him in jail for 15 years.

Sapega, a 23-year-old law student at the European Humanities University (EHU) in Lithuania, appeared in another video on Tuesday, saying she worked for a Telegram channel that disclosed information about Belarusian police.

Her lawyer said she had been ordered held for two months of pre-trial detention and Russia confirmed she was being detained as a criminal suspect.

Belarus’s opposition says such videos are routinely recorded by security forces, with participants forced to make statements under duress.

– ‘They’re going to kill him’ –

Protasevich’s mother told AFP in Poland that she had not slept since he was arrested.

“I’m asking, I’m begging, I’m calling on the whole international community to save him,” Natalia Protasevich said, weeping.

“They’re going to kill him in there.”

EU leaders on Monday warned they would adopt further “targeted economic sanctions” against the Belarusian authorities to add to the 88 regime figures and seven companies on a blacklist.

Last year’s protests lasted for months, with tens of thousands taking to the streets to denounce Lukashenko, but were brutally quashed and thousands were detained — many of whom reported torture and abuse in custody.

Many protest leaders — including now-exiled opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who claimed victory in the August vote — fled the country, and the demonstrations have dwindled.

Tikhanovskaya this week urged Europe and Washington to take stronger action against Lukashenko’s regime, but he continues to enjoy solid support from Russia.

Speaking to the European Parliament via video link on Wednesday, Tikhanovskaya called for a series of concrete measures, including a ban on new foreign investments and on Belarus’s main exports like oil and metal products, potash fertilisers and wood.

Diplomatic sources told AFP the UN Security Council would hold an informal meeting on Belarus on Wednesday but was unlikely to agree on a collective statement because of Russia’s support for Minsk.

AFP

EU Cuts Air Links With Belarus Over Forced Plane Landing

A logo for the European Union

 

EU leaders cut Europe’s air links with Belarus on Monday, as strongman Alexander Lukashenko’s regime paraded a dissident journalist arrested after his flight was forced to land in Minsk.

Lukashenko sparked international outrage by dispatching a fighter jet Sunday to intercept a Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius carrying wanted reporter Roman Protasevich, 26, and his girlfriend Sofia Sapega.

European leaders meeting in Brussels called for the release of the pair and hit back at Minsk by agreeing to ban Belarusian airlines from the bloc and urging EU-based carriers not to fly over its airspace.

The leaders also warned they would adopt further “targeted economic sanctions” against the Belarusian authorities to add to the 88 regime figures and seven companies already on a blacklist over a crackdown on opposition.

The move came as Belarusian state television broadcast a 30-second video of Protasevich, who had been living between Lithuania and Poland, confirming that he was in prison in Minsk and “confessing” to charges of organising mass unrest.

The footage showed Protasevich — who could face 15 years in jail — with dark markings visible on his forehead, saying he was being treated “according to the law”.

US President Joe Biden slammed the forced diversion of the plane and arrest of Protasevich as “a direct affront to international norms” and said the video appeared to have been made “under duress”.

READ ALSO: Australia To Close Embassy In Afghanistan Over Security Fears

“I welcome the news that the European Union has called for targeted economic sanctions and other measures, and have asked my team to develop appropriate options to hold accountable those responsible,” Biden said, in a White House statement.

– ‘Outrageous behaviour’ –

The forced landing of an airliner flying between EU nations has refocused attention on the festering political crisis in Belarus, where Lukashenko has unleashed waves of brutal repression to cling to power.

Western leaders accused Belarusian authorities of essentially hijacking a European plane, while Minsk claimed it had reacted to secure the flight after receiving a bomb threat.

“We will not tolerate any attempt to play Russian roulette with the lives of innocent civilians,” EU chief Charles Michel said.

The EU’s push to punish Minsk followed announcements from some nations and airlines that they were cutting links to Belarus.

London also said it had issued instructions for British aircraft to avoid Belarusian airspace.

Ukraine said it would halt direct flights between the two countries and over Belarus, while Scandinavian airline SAS, Germany’s Lufthansa and Latvia-based regional airline Air Baltic said they would be avoiding Belarusian airspace.

– ‘Completely implausible’ –

Belarus has insisted it acted legally over the grounding of the Ryanair jet, accusing the West of making “unfounded accusations” for political reasons.

Its air force chief said the plane’s captain had decided to land in Belarus “without outside interference” and that the pilot could have chosen to go to Ukraine or Poland.

A senior Belarusian transport official said the authorities received a letter claiming to be from the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas threatening to blow up the plane over Vilnius unless the EU renounced support for Israel.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel dismissed Minsk’s explanations as “completely implausible” and the EU demanded a probe by the International Civil Aviation Organization.

The ICAO, a UN agency, is to meet on Thursday.

United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres backed calls for a “full, transparent and independent investigation into this disturbing incident”.

– Russia unruffled –

NATO slammed a “serious and dangerous incident” and said envoys from the military alliance were to discuss it on Tuesday.

The EU and other Western countries have already imposed a wide range of sanctions on Lukashenko’s government over its crackdown on opposition demonstrations that followed his disputed re-election to a sixth term last August.

But Lukashenko has remained defiant with help from his main backer Russia.

Britain’s Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab raised the possibility of that Russia had backed the operation.

“It’s very difficult to believe that this kind of action could have been taken without at least the acquiescence of the authorities in Moscow,” he told parliament.

But Russia has dismissed the outrage in the West.

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Minsk was taking an “absolutely reasonable approach” while ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova mocked the Western indignation.

“We are shocked that the West calls the incident in Belarusian air space ‘shocking,'” Zakharova said on Facebook, accusing Western nations of “kidnappings, forced landings and illegal arrests”.

Together with co-founder Stepan Putilo, Protasevich until recently ran the Nexta channel on messaging app Telegram, which helped organise the protests that were the biggest challenge to Lukashenko’s 26-year rule.

With close to two million subscribers on the service, Nexta Live and its sister channel Nexta are prominent opposition channels and helped mobilise protesters in Belarus.

Protasevich and Putilo were added to Belarus’s list of “individuals involved in terrorist activity” last year.

The spiralling tensions around Belarus were in evidence as Minsk expelled the entire staff of Latvia’s embassy, including the ambassador, after accusing Latvian authorities of having used an opposition flag at an ice hockey championship.

AFP

Seven Belarus Activists Sentenced To Jail Over Protests

Protesters hold images of Belarus strongman Alexander Lukashenko (L), Belarus opposition activist Roman Protasevich (C), and Protasevich’s Russian girlfriend Sofia Sapega (R) during a demonstration of Belarusians living in Poland and Poles supporting them in front of the European Commission office in Warsaw on May 24, 2021 Wojtek RADWANSKI / AFP

 

Belarus on Tuesday sentenced seven activists, including senior opposition figure Pavel Severinets, to jail terms of four to seven years, a journalist reported from court.

In a trial held behind closed doors in a court in the eastern Mogilev region, the activists were found guilty of taking part in “mass unrest”, referring to the historic protests that erupted after a disputed presidential election last August.

The demonstrations gripped the country for months after Alexander Lukashenko, 66, claimed a landslide sixth presidential term in the vote the opposition and European leaders said was rigged.

Severinets, who co-chairs the unregistered Belarusian Christian Democracy party, was arrested in June last year after a picket in support of opposition presidential candidates.

The court found him guilty of “organising mass unrest” even though he has been in detention for the past 11 months and did not take part in the mass demonstrations.

The court took two days to consider the case.

The European Union and the United States have sanctioned Lukashenko and his allies with travel bans and asset freezes over the crackdown on protesters.

Thousands were arrested, with many reporting torture in custody. At least four people died during the demonstrations.

On Sunday, Belarus faced a global outcry after the government ordered the diversion of a European flight over Belarusian airspace and arrested a dissident who was on board.

Several EU-based carriers cut air links with Belarus while European leaders also warned of further sanctions on the ex-Soviet country.

Although the protests have since died down, activists and independent journalists continue receiving jail terms in the aftermath.

-AFP

Air France, Singapore Airlines Suspend Flights In Belarus Airspace

Staff members refuel an Airbus A350-900, the first Air France jet long-haul aircraft fuelled with sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) produced by French energy group Total at Roissy airport on May 18, 2021.
Eric PIERMONT / AFP

 

Air France, Finnair, and Singapore Airlines became the latest carriers to suspend flights over Belarus on Tuesday after Minsk forced a jet to land to arrest a dissident.

The announcements came a day after European Union leaders urged EU-based airlines to avoid Belarusian airspace and banned the country’s airlines from the 27-nation block.

Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko sparked international outrage by dispatching a fighter jet Sunday to intercept a Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius carrying wanted reporter Roman Protasevich, 26, and his girlfriend Sofia Sapega.

Air France said in a statement it had “taken note” of the conclusions of Monday’s EU summit and had suspended flights over Belarus “until further notice”.

Planes already in the air will have their flight plans modified, the French company said.

Singapore Airlines was also rerouting flights “that are bound for Europe to avoid the Belarusian airspace” and would continue to “closely monitor the situation”, a spokesperson said.

“The safety of our customers and crew is our top priority,” a spokesperson told AFP.

Finnair said the next flight that will be affected by its decision to reroute planes is one that was heading to the Turkish coastal town of Gazipasa on Wednesday.

Scandinavian airline SAS, Germany’s Lufthansa, and Latvia-based regional airline Air Baltic made similar announcements on Monday.

Britain also issued instructions for British aircraft to avoid Belarusian airspace while Ukraine decided to halt direct flights between the two countries and over Belarus.

Western leaders have accused Belarusian authorities of essentially hijacking a European plane, while Minsk claimed it had reacted to secure the flight after receiving a bomb threat.

-AFP

Belarus Bans Journalists From Covering Mass Protests

Young men and a woman wear the Belarus flag as passengers disembark from a Ryanair passenger plane from Athens, Greece, that was intercepted and diverted to Minsk on the same day by Belarus authorities, after it landed at Vilnius International Airport, its initial destination, on May 23, 2021. PHOTO: PETRAS MALUKAS / AFP

 

Belarusian strongman Alexander Lukashenko on Monday approved legislation that would ban reporters from providing real-time coverage of unauthorised mass events, piling huge pressure on independent journalists.

Lukashenko, who has been in power since 1994, signed off on these and other controversial amendments as his regime face global fury over the forced diversion of a European plane with Belarusian dissident Roman Protasevich onboard on Sunday.

The amendments to the law on media and mass events ban reporters from taking part in or organising an unauthorised mass event and providing live coverage of such events.

Any Belarusian national — not just a journalist — is banned from covering an unauthorised rally and using crowdfunding to pay fines over the violation of legislation on mass gatherings, according to the amendments published by state media.

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The publication of results of independent polls will also not be allowed.

Belarus was gripped by months of unprecedented anti-government demonstrations that erupted after a disputed presidential election last August saw Lukashenko claim a sixth term in office.

Belarusian security forces unleashed a harsh crackdown against the protests, detaining demonstrators and pushing opposition leaders into exile. Several people have died in the unrest.

A campaign to muzzle independent media followed, with dozens of journalists already receiving jail terms for covering opposition events.

Lukashenko critics say that the amended legislation legalises the crackdown on independent journalism in the ex-Soviet country.

“Major opportunities have opened up for the eradication of what’s been left of independent media,” Boris Goretsky, deputy head of the Belarusian Association of Journalists, told AFP.

According to the association, nearly 30 journalists are currently behind bars in Belarus.

The Interior Ministry on Monday published a list of “extremist” Telegram channels including Nexta, which galvanised and coordinated huge protests against Lukashenko.

Journalist and activist Protasevich, who was detained in Minsk on Sunday following the diversion of his Athens-to-Vilnius Ryanair flight, is a co-founder of Nexta and its former editor.

AFP