The European Union and other western powers have pledged to ramp up pressure on Belarus after it forced a Ryanair plane to land so that an opposition activist on board could be arrested, as Russia refused entry clearance to at least two European airlines in an apparent show of solidarity with its neighbour and ally.
Veteran Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko is due to meet Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin on Friday, five days after his regime told a Ryanair flight en route from Greece to Lithuania that it faced a bomb threat and should land at Minsk airport, where Roman Protasevich and girlfriend Sofia Sapega were detained.
The EU subsequently barred Belarusian airlines from the bloc and urged EU-based carriers to avoid the country’s airspace, and on Thursday foreign ministers from member states began discussing the imposition of sanctions on key areas of the Belarusian economy such as potash production, energy and finance.
"It is clear that we will not be satisfied with small sanctions steps, but that we aim to target the economic structure and financial transactions in Belarus significantly with sanctions," said German foreign minister Heiko Maas.
As he met EU counterparts in Lisbon, Mr Maas said the bloc would “continue to look at what effects this has in Belarus, whether Lukashenko relents. If that isn’t the case, we have to assume that this will be just the beginning of a big and long spiral of sanctions.”
Germany’s top diplomat said a key litmus test would be whether Mr Lukashenko freed more than 400 political prisoners arrested during a brutal crackdown on his critics in response to huge opposition protests last summer.
"We demand the immediate and unconditional release of Roman Protasevich, as well as all other journalists and political prisoners held in Belarus," G7 foreign ministers and the EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said in a statement.
“We will enhance our efforts, including through further sanctions as appropriate, to promote accountability for the actions of the Belarusian authorities.”
The group also echoed a call from Minister for Transport Eamon Ryan for a full investigation into the Ryanair incident by International Civil Aviation Organisation.
Mr Lukashenko, who has ruled Belarus for 27 years, insists Belarusian officials believed the bomb threat against the airliner to be potentially real and so behaved properly in scrambling a fighter jet to escort the airliner to Minsk.
Belarusian claims that the bomb warning came from Hamas were widely ridiculed, and London-based research group Dossier Centre has published what it says is the email containing the threat – which was sent 24 minutes after Minsk air traffic control warned the Ryanair crew of the supposed danger.
Mr Lukashenko accused Mr Protasevich (26) of plotting a “bloody revolt” in Belarus with foreign backing, and claimed the West was using the incident to “strangle” his country with sanctions and put pressure on its chief ally, Russia.
Austrian Airlines said it cancelled Thursday's Vienna-Moscow flight after Russian aviation authorities refused to allow it to re-route around Belarus, and Air France cancelled its Paris-Moscow flight for the second day running for the same reason.