White House to ‘develop options’ to hold Belarus to account after flight diversion

Biden condemns arrest of journalist Raman Protasevich in ‘strongest possible terms’

Protesters in Poland demand freedom for Belarus opposition activist Roman Protasevich a day after a Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius carrying the dissident journalist was diverted while in Belarusian airspace. Photograph: Wojtek Radwanski/AFP via Getty

Protesters in Poland demand freedom for Belarus opposition activist Roman Protasevich a day after a Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius carrying the dissident journalist was diverted while in Belarusian airspace. Photograph: Wojtek Radwanski/AFP via Getty

 

President of the United States Joe Biden said he applauded European Union efforts to impose economic sanctions against Belarus over the forced landing of a Ryanair plane and the arrest of a dissident journalist, and had ordered his team to “develop appropriate options” to hold those responsible to account.

The “removal and arrest of Raman Protasevich, a Belarusian journalist travelling abroad, are a direct affront to international norms,” Mr Biden said in a statement on Monday night, adding that the US condemned the act “in the strongest possible terms”.

European Union leaders hours earlier asked the European Commission to propose that Belarus officials be added to an existing sanctions list, as well as to develop broader measures to penalise entire sectors of the country’s economy. The sanctions could target the financial interests of president Alexander Lukashenko and his close relatives and associates, as well as businesses, according to a EU official who described the effort on the condition of anonymity.

The jet bound for Lithuania was diverted by a bomb threat and accompanied by a fighter plane to the Belarusian capital Minsk, where Mr Protasevich and his girlfriend, Sofia Sapega, were removed and detained by authorities.

Mr Biden added in the statement that he welcomed the demand for sanctions and had “asked my team to develop appropriate options to hold accountable those responsible, in close co-ordination with the European Union, other allies and partners, and international organisations.”

US trade with Belarus amounted to only about $112 million (€99 million) in 2020, according to the US Census Bureau.

Separately, White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan spoke on Monday with the exiled Belarus opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya.

Mr Sullivan made clear that the United States, in co-ordination with the EU and other allies and partners, will hold the Lukashenko regime to account,” spokeswoman Emily Horne said in a statement.

Travel ban

Lawmakers on Capitol Hill urged Mr Biden on Monday to direct the Federal Aviation Administration to prohibit US aircraft from entering Belarus air space after the episode.

“In an effort to keep passengers and crew safe, we urge you to prohibit all US airlines from entering Belarusian airspace, and encourage our allies and partners to do the same,” Senate Judiciary chairman Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, and senator Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican, wrote in a letter to Mr Biden.

Transportation secretary Pete Buttigieg said in a statement on Monday night that the transportation department and the Federal Aviation Administration “are working closely with the state department and other US agencies to understand precisely what happened and what actions may need to be taken to keep the flying public safe.”

Mr Lukashenko has been the leader of Belarus since shortly after the country declared its independence from the crumbling Soviet Union in 1991. He enjoys broad support from the Kremlin, and the Protasevich episode could throw doubt into plans for a summit between Mr Biden and Russian president Vladimir Putin. That meeting could come as soon as next month, around Mr Biden’s scheduled visits to the UK and Belgium for gatherings of the G7, EU, and Nato (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation), and would likely be held in Geneva, NBC News reported on Monday.

But White House press secretary Jen Psaki suggested earlier in the day that Russian backing for Belarus would likely not wreck a possible summit, pointing out that Mr Sullivan and Russian security council secretary Nikolai Patrushev held a planning call earlier in the day.– Bloomberg