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The European Union is calling on all airlines based in the bloc to avoid flying over Belarusian airspace. The move is a major blow to the Belarusian regime, a day after Belarusian officials forced the diversion of an international commercial flight in order to apprehend opposition activist Roman Protasevich.
The decision was announced during a summit of EU leaders in Brussels on Monday evening.
International outrage has followed the emergency landing on Sunday. Belarus ordered a Ryanair flight to make an emergency landing in the capital city of Minsk, after reports a bomb was aboard the aircraft. Belarusian officials then entered the plane and arrested Protasevich, the former editor and founder of an opposition blog and social media channel Nexta.
“Ordinary citizens’ lives were in danger,” Ireland’s minister for European affairs Thomas Byrne told NPR’s All Things Considered on Monday. “This is wrong, it’s illegal and quite frankly it could happen to any of us, so we cannot allow this to happen anywhere in the world.”
The EU also asked the European Council to begin the process of banning Belarusian airlines from flying over EU airspace or landing in its airports — a move that will effectively block the country’s air connections to Western Europe.
In addition, the leaders called on the Council to adopt further targeted economic sanctions against Belarusian officials.
Alexander Lukashenko, Belarus’ authoritarian leader, is in his sixth term in office after declaring himself the winner of an election in August. Months of massive street protests followed — protests in which Protasevich was a key organizer. With Russian support, Lukashenko has remained in power.
The European Union and U.S. don’t recognize Lukashenko as legitimate, imposing sanctions on his inner circle.
NPR correspondents Rob Schmitz and Lucian Kim contributed to this report from Europe.