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EU Considers Repercussions Against Belarus For Airline Incident

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Consequences are coming for Belarus. The European Union has called on all EU-based airlines to avoid flying over the Eastern European country after the government there forced a commercial flight to land so they could arrest a journalist.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Roman Protasevich is his name. He was headed to Lithuania, where he was living, and his flight was travelling over Belarus over the weekend when one of Belarus' Russian-made fighter jets appeared and directed it downward. And the EU is considering more sanctions against the president of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko. Here's the prime minister of Lithuania, Ingrida Simonyte, speaking on Sky News.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRIME MINISTER INGRIDA SIMONYTE: It's outrageous to see that Lukashenko's the regime can use whatever measures just to get a person he doesn't like.

MARTIN: NPR's Rob Schmitz is following this extraordinary story. He joins us from Berlin. Rob, Steve just laid out a thumbnail sketch of what happened. Can you remind us of the details, though?

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: Yeah. On Sunday afternoon, Belarus scrambled a fighter jet to force a Ryanair flight, which was flying from Greece to Lithuania, to land in the Belarusian capital, Minsk, so that authorities there could arrest journalist Roman Protasevich, a man whose work has shed light on the corruption of Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko and which has given fuel to months of protests in Belarus over what many observers believe was a fraudulent election to keep Lukashenko, who is an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, in power.

MARTIN: So the EU is trying to keep its airliners out of Belarus' airspace. What other pressure are they planning against Belarus and the government?

SCHMITZ: The EU is also asking the European Council, the decision-making body of the EU, to ban Belarusian airlines from flying over EU airspace or landing in its airports. And that's a strong move because it effectively blocks the country's air connections to all of Western Europe. EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen justified this action last night. Here's what she said.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

URSULA VON DER LEYEN: The Air Navigation Service was misused to aid the state in taking control of an EU aircraft, and Belarus used its control of its airspace in order to perpetrate a state hijacking. Therefore the safety and security of flights through Belarus airspace can no longer be trusted.

SCHMITZ: The EU is also looking into economic sanctions on businesses and entities that financially support the Lukashenko regime. And, of course, it's demanding the immediate release of Roman Protasevich and Sofia Sapega.

MARTIN: Meanwhile, there's this video of Roman Protasevich that's appeared on the internet, and tell us about that.

SCHMITZ: Yeah. This is a chilling video because it shows a staunch opponent to the Belarusian government confessing to organizing protests and almost praising how he's being treated. Here's what he said.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ROMAN PROTASEVICH: (Non-English language spoken).

SCHMITZ: And, Rachel, he's saying here that police officers treat me properly and according to law. Also I now continue to cooperate with the investigation and give a confession of the fact of organizing mass protests in Minsk. And it should be noted here that Protasevich looked disheveled, and there were visible bruises on his face in this video.

MARTIN: So we should just acknowledge Belarus, the autocratic leader there, Lukashenko, enjoys strong support from Russia. Are further sanctions from western countries likely to curb brazen action by Lukashenko, like this arrest?

SCHMITZ: Well, it's going to depend on how far these sanctions go. Last year, the EU imposed sanctions on individuals within the regime, and it wasn't enough for Lukashenko - to prevent ordering the landing of this EU passenger plane. Supporters of the opposition in Belarus say stronger sanctions on energy companies operating in the country could do more damage.

MARTIN: All right. NPR's Rob Schmitz reporting on all this from Berlin. Thank you, Rob.

SCHMITZ: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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