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U.S. to reimpose sanctions on Belarus after forced diversion of Ryanair flight

Airlines operating in Europe are working to avoid Belarus after the country ordered the grounding of a Ryanair plane flying from Greece to Lithuania on May 23. (Video: Reuters)
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The Biden administration announced Friday the United States will reimpose sanctions on Belarus after President Alexander Lukashenko forced the diversion of a commercial Ryanair flight last week to arrest a journalist on board.

White House officials called the May 23 incident “a direct affront to international norms” in a blistering statement issued late Friday night that included a long list of punishments that would be enacted against Belarus and against key members of the Lukashenko regime.

“These events took place amid an escalating wave of repression by the Lukashenka regime against the aspirations of the people of Belarus for democracy and human rights,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said in a statement.

According to the White House, the United States on Thursday will reimpose full blocking sanctions against nine Belarusian state-owned enterprises. Biden administration officials are also coordinating with allies in the European Union and elsewhere to develop “a list of targeted sanctions against key members” of Lukashenko’s regime, Psaki said.

Meanwhile, Treasury Department officials are working on a new executive order for President Biden to review that would increase his authority to impose sanctions on “elements” of Lukashenko’s regime, she added.

“We take these measures, together with our partners and Allies, to hold the regime accountable for its actions and to demonstrate our commitment to the aspirations of the people of Belarus,” Psaki said.

Passengers on the Ryanair flight grounded in Belarus for hours on May 23 described what happened once they made it to their destination in Lithuania. (Video: LNK-LITHUANIA via AP)

The diverted Ryanair flight had been en route May 23 from Athens to Vilnius, Lithuania, when — while in Belarusian airspace — air traffic controllers in Belarus ordered the plane to land in Minsk, citing possible explosives on board. After the flight was intercepted, Belarusian authorities arrested passenger Roman Protasevich, an opposition journalist, and his girlfriend, Russian activist Sofia Sapega.

The brazen seizure of the commercial jetliner, which was carrying 123 passengers, prompted international outrage and condemnation. Earlier this week, the State Department issued a Level 4 warning urging U.S. citizens not to travel to Belarus, and the Federal Aviation Administration on Friday warned U.S. commercial airlines to “exercise extreme caution” when considering passing through Belarusian airspace. The United States will also suspend its discretionary application of the 2019 U.S.-Belarus Air Services Agreement, the White House said Friday.

The punishments are similar to those enacted by European Union leaders, all 27 of whom agreed Monday to toughen sanctions on Lukashenko’s authoritarian government, bar E.U. airlines from traversing Belarusian airspace and prevent Belavia, Belarus’s national airline, from flying over or landing in E.U. territory.

Roman Protasevich's mother, Nataliya, on May 26 in Wroclaw, Poland, pleaded for the world to "stand up and help" her son who was detained in Belarus on May 23. (Video: Reuters)

Claire Parker contributed to this report.

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