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EU Leaders Agree on Broader Economic Sanctions: Belarus Update

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EU Leaders Agree on Broader Economic Sanctions: Belarus Update
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(Bloomberg) -- European Union leaders agreed on broader economic sanctions against Belarus over the forced landing of a Ryanair Holdings Plc plane.

The 27 leaders meeting in Brussels on Monday demanded the immediate release of Belarusian journalist Raman Pratasevich and called on the International Civil Aviation Organization to investigate the situation.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel called the incident “without precedent” and said explanations from the Belarus government weren’t credible.

Read More: How Belarus Snatched a Dissident Off a Ryanair Plane From Greece

Key Developments:

Belarusian journalist Raman Pratasevich removed from plane in MinskU.S., EU and U.K. leaders condemn actions by authorities in BelarusRussia defends Belarus, its closest allyFlights over Belarus airspace continue

All times are Central European Time.

Three Additional Passengers Disembarked in Minsk (11:09 p.m.)

When the Ryanair flight was forced to land in Minsk on Sunday, three passengers got off the plane, in addition to the journalist, Pratasevich, and his girlfriend. One of the passengers was Greek and the other two were Belarusian, according to a person familiar with the investigation.

The reason these passengers disembarked is unknown, said the person, who asked not to be identified because the investigation is ongoing.

“We believe there was also some KGB agents offloaded off the aircraft,” Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary said earlier Monday in comments broadcast by RTE Radio.

EU Leaders Agree on Broader Economic Sanctions for Belarus (10:30 p.m.)

EU leaders tasked their ministers on Monday to ban overflight of EU airspace by Belarusian Airlines and prevent access to EU airports, according to the summit conclusions posted on Twitter. The leaders also asked European airlines to avoid overflight of Belarus.

Moreover, leaders vowed to add more Belarusian officials to an existing sanctions blacklist and adopt a broader set of punitive measures that would target companies and entire sectors of the country’s economy.

Hamas Denies It Sent Bomb Threat to Airport (9:50 p.m.)

A Hamas spokesman denied a Belarusian assertion that the organization sent a bomb threat to the Minsk airport, leading to the forced landing of a Ryanair flight on Sunday.

“It’s not true at all and Hamas never does such kinds of actions,” Hazem Qassem, a Hamas spokesman in Gaza, told Bloomberg.

Earlier on Monday, Artiom Sikorskiy, director of aviation at the Belarus Transportation Ministry, told reporters that an email from people claiming to be Hamas fighters demanded that Israel stop fighting in Gaza and for the EU to withdraw support for Israel.

Pratasevich Appears in Video, Says He’s Healthy (9:13 p.m.)

Belarusian journalist Raman Pratasevich appeared in a video posted by state-owned media channels late Monday, denying reports that he’s suffering from health issues and that he is in the hospital. The circumstances of the video were unclear and it’s unkown if he was coerced into giving the statement.

“I continue to cooperate with the investigation and am confessing evidence of organizing mass unrest in Minsk,” he said in the video, adding that his treatment is consistent with the law.

Lufthansa Suspends Flights Over Belarus (9:13 p.m.)

Lufthansa will suspend operations in Belarusian airspace “for the time being,” a company spokesperson said in an email.

Earlier Monday, a Lufthansa flight from Minsk to Frankfurt was held for 2 hours after its scheduled time of departure. The airline had said that it was cooperating with local authorities who were “searching the aircraft again before departure and subjecting the passengers to another security check” after receiving a security alert during boarding.

Belarus Denies Reports That Journalist Is in Hospital (8:25 p.m.)

Belarusian Interior Ministry spokeswoman Olga Chemodanova denied reports that Pratasevich had been transferred to hospital with serious health problems. Chemodanova said on her Telegram account that Pratasevich hasn’t complained about his health and is still being held in jail in Minsk.

Polish Deputy Foreign Minister Pawel Jablonski earlier told TVN24 television that his government has received reports from Pratasevich’s mother that her son has “very serious” health conditions. Jablonski said such information is “very worrisome” given the unexplained deaths among members of Belarussian opposition who have been arrested in recent months.

Inessa Olenskaya, Pratasevich’s lawyer, said by phone from Minsk that she couldn’t immediately confirm his condition and didn’t have information about his whereabouts.

EU Leaders Go Dark to Keep Talks Secret (8:20 p.m.)

Leaders at the summit have been asked not to use electronic devices, including their mobile phones, during the talks on Belarus and on Russia.

Summit chair Charles Michel, who heads the European Council, requested the move “to ensure the confidentiality of the discussion,” his spokesman Barend Leyts tweeted.

Von Der Leyen Says EU Preparing ‘Very Strong Answer’ (7:32 p.m.)

Ursula von der Leyen, head of the EU’s executive arm, pledged that the bloc will ensure “a very strong answer because it is outrageous behavior and Lukashenko and his regime have to understand this will have serious consequences.”

On her way into the summit, the chief of the European Commission said leaders will explore “sanctions against individuals that are involved in this hijacking but also sanctions against business and economic entities that are financing this regime. And we are looking into sanctions against the aviation sector in Belarus.”

Von der Leyen said a previously prepared 3 billion-euro ($3.7 billion) investment and economic package by the EU “is on hold and frozen until Belarus turns democratic.”

Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo told reporters before the meeting that the bloc would act quickly.

“This is a flight between two European capitals where European citizens have been used as hostages in an illegal arrest,” he said. “We will propose rapid, swift and severe measures are being taken to make it very clear that something like this is not being accepted.”

Merkel Calls for a Ban on Overflights (6:42 p.m.)

On her way into the summit, German Chancellor Angela Merkel called for further sanctions against Belarusian officials and a ban on overflights.

She called the actions of Belarus authorities “without precedent” and said their explanations were “totally uncredible.”

The White House Demands an Immediate Investigation (6:42 p.m.)

The White House demanded an international investigation of Belarus’s forced landing of the Ryanair plane, calling it an “affront” by Lukashenko’s government.

“This was a shocking act, diverting a flight between two EU member states for the apparent purpose of arresting a journalist,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki told reporters on Monday. “It constitutes a brazen affront to international peace and security by the regime. We demand an immediate international transparent and credible investigation of this incident.”

She said the U.S. government is “in touch” with allies about the incident, and the U.S. ambassador to Belarus has conveyed the Biden administration’s concerns “directly.” White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan also “raised our strong concerns” about Belarus’s action with his Kremlin counterpart. Russia is Belarus’s closest ally.

Leaders Begin Arriving at Summit in Brussels (6:15 p.m.)

EU leaders are expected to use the following wording in their joint communique on Belarus, according to a senior diplomat familiar with the ongoing drafting of the text:

They’ll condemn the forced landing and call for release of Raman Pratasevich and Sofia Sapega.Call for an investigation of this “unprecedented and unacceptable incident”Vow “to adopt additional listings as soon as possible on the basis of the relevant sanctions framework”Call on all EU-based carriers to avoid overflight of BelarusTask their ministers “to adopt the necessary measures to ban overflight of EU airspace by Belarusian Airlines and prevent access to EU airports”

Transport Lobby Says Avoiding Belarus Airspace Difficult (6:02 p.m.)

It could be complicated for airlines to avoid Belarusian airspace given its location and the fact that there are other restricted flight areas nearby, according to Director General of the International Air Transport Association Willie Walsh. He told Bloomberg Television’s Guy Johnson and Alix Steel that airlines that are still flying over Belarus will have assessed the risk.

“We do have to strongly condemn the actions of the government of Belarus,” Walsh said. “What they did on Sunday, intercepting a commercial civil aircraft, clearly put the passengers and crew of that aircraft at risk. Forcing them to divert is unacceptable behavior by any government.”

U.K. Summons Belarus Ambassador (6:02 p.m.)

The U.K. summoned the Belarusian ambassador to London to explain the forced landing of a commercial plane and arrest of journalist Raman Pratasevich, according to Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab.

Raab told Parliament on Monday that the actions by Belarus were an “egregious and extraordinary departure from international law.”

“It’s very difficult to believe that this kind of action could’ve been taken without at least the acquiescence of the authorities in Moscow,” Raab said.

U.K. Suspends Operating Permit of Belarus Airline (6:02 p.m.)

Raab told Parliament the U.K. has suspended the operating permit on the Belarusian airline Belavia. He added that the Civil Aviation Authority has been instructed not to grant any further ad hoc permits for carriers between the U.K. and Belarus, and to request airlines not to venture into Belarusian airspace.

Belarus Says Bomb Threat Led to Forced Landing (6:02 p.m.)

Belarus grounded the Ryanair flight after receiving an emailed bomb threat signed by people claiming to be Hamas fighters, Artiom Sikorskiy, director of aviation at the country’s Transportation Ministry, said during an online briefing Monday.

The message included demands for Israel to stop fighting in Gaza and the EU to withdraw support for Israel, and was composed in English, Sikorskiy said. The bomb was allegedly set to explode over Lithuania’s capital, Vilnius.

The anonymous email to the Minsk airport was sent just days after the Israel-Palestine truce sparked celebrations in Gaza.

Michel to Push for Concrete EU Measures (4:45 p.m.)

European Council President Charles Michel will push for EU leaders to decide on measures against Belarus when they meet for dinner Monday night at the start of a two-day summit.

“What happened yesterday is an international scandal. Lives of European civilians were at risk,” Michel said as he arrived at the summit building. “This is not acceptable and this is why we put the debate on sanctions on the table of the European Council.”

“We are preparing different options, different possible measures and I hope tonight we can take decisions on that,” he added.

Schroders Says Putin Unlikely to Jeopardize Biden Summit (4:45 p.m.)

“The developments over the weekend are obviously negative and we will await a European response,” Schroders money manager James Barrineau said by email from New York. “We doubt Putin will want to jeopardize his summit with Biden over this issue, but it does not help the overall tone of the relationship of Russia with Europe.”

Schroders has a “very small” position in Belarus, and for now does not expect implications for Russian assets from the forced landing of the Ryanair plane in Minsk, he said.

Germany Summons Belarus Ambassador (4:29 p.m.)

Germany summoned the Belarus ambassador to the foreign ministry in Berlin Monday evening to explain why the country forced a Ryanair jet to land in Minsk. Foreign Minister Heiko Maas called the previous explanations from Alexander Lukashenko’s regime “absurd and not credible.”

“We need clarity about what really happened on board and on the ground yesterday,” Maas said in a statement. “And we need clarity about the well-being of Raman Pratasevich and his partner, who must be released immediately.”

Lithuania Urges Its Citizens to Avoid Belarus (4:29 p.m.)

The Lithuanian foreign ministry urged its nationals not to travel to Belarus and recommended those currently in the neighboring country to leave, according to a statement. The incident with the Ryanair plane demonstrates “a threat to security and lives of individuals,” the ministry said.

Lufthansa Flight Leaves Minsk With all Passengers (3:42 p.m.)

Lufthansa flight LH1487 from Minsk to Frankfurt took off at 4:21 p.m. local time, according to FlightRadar24, 2 hours after its scheduled time of departure. The airline had earlier said that it was cooperating with local authorities who were “searching the aircraft again before departure and subjecting the passengers to another security check” after receiving a security alert during boarding.

All 51 people schedule to depart on the flight were on board, according to a Lufthansa spokesperson.

Tsikhanouskaya Calls for Belarus Sanctions (3:28 p.m.)

Exiled Belarus opposition leader Svetlana Tsikhanouskaya called for sanctions against the country during a Monday phone call with EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell. She is scheduled to hold a call later in the day with members of President Joe Biden’s administration.

Tsikhanouskaya also said the whereabouts of the detained journalist Raman Pratasevich are unknown and his lawyer is unable to contact him. The journalist’s girlfriend, who is a Russian citizen, is being held in a Minsk prison and has been refused assistance from the Russian consulate.

Lufthansa Flight From Minsk Delayed by Threat (3:02 p.m.)

Lufthansa flight LH1487 from Minsk to Frankfurt was delayed following a “security alert,” the German airline said in a statement. The Minsk airport said on its Telegram channel that it had received an anonymous email about a planned “terrorist attack.” Lufthansa said 51 passengers, including five crew members, were on board the plane.

“We are cooperating with the authorities, who are searching the aircraft again before departure and subjecting the passengers to another security check,” Lufthansa said on Monday. The search includes unloading all suitcases and cargo.

Czech Premier Says EU Must Be Tough (2:50 p.m.)

The proposals for discussion about EU’s response include banning Belarus airlines from landing in the EU or suspending flights over Belarus’s airspace, Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis said. He said that according to available information, there were four Russian citizens on the Raynair flight “who probably had a lot to do with this unbelievable act.”

“Europe’s response must be tough,” Babis told reporters before departing to EU summit.

Passenger Number Confusion (2:40 p.m.)

Lithuania’s criminal police said on Monday that 121 of the 126 passengers who left Athens on the flight arrived in Vilnius. On Sunday, both Greece and Lithuania said 171 passengers and crew were on the flight, which Lithuania said Monday was the number of reservations. There was also confusion over infant passengers, who didn’t require tickets, and some boarding passes that weren’t digital. Ryanair hasn’t confirmed the numbers.

Lithuania’s transport member also said the country would ban flights to and from Belarus airspace starting at 3 a.m. on Tuesday. The ban will affect 26 flights a day. Lithuania’s neighbor Poland will propose at the EU summit on Monday that all flights between the bloc and Belarus be halted.

Poland Wants to Halt All Flights Between EU and Belarus (1:55 p.m.)

Poland has come as one of the strongest voices demanding firm action. At the meeting of leaders in Brussels Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki will propose halting all flights between EU and Belarus.

Belarusian Activists Ask EU For Help (1:50 p.m.)

Holding a placard reading “SOS,” Belarusian activists in Poland appealed to the EU for help. Standing in front of Belarus embassy in Warsaw, Nexta founder and blogger Stsiapan Putsila said he’s received “more than a thousand threats” since Sunday. “We can’t stay silent,” said Jana Shostak, another activist.

Police Revise Passenger Numbers (1:40 p.m.)

According to Lithuania’s criminal police, 121 of the 126 passengers who left Athens on the flight arrived in Vilnius. The captain of the airliner consulted with Ryanair’s management before deciding to divert to Minsk. On Sunday, both Greece and Lithuania said 171 passengers and crew were on the flight.

Poland Increases Protection of Activists (1:30 p.m.)

Polish Deputy Foreign Minister Pawel Jablonski said on Monday his country was setting up “special protection” for activists on Polish territory who “could be in the cross-hairs of Belarusian or Russian services.”

Raman Pratasevich, arrested after the Ryanair plane was diverted to Minsk, worked for Nexta, a media group registered and run out of Warsaw.

Jablonski urged activists to avoid contact with Belarus as “we can’t tell what the regime is capable of.”

France Says All Options Being Considered (1:20 p.m.)

“Nothing is off the table,” a French diplomat told journalists when asked about possible punitive measures against Belarus.

In addition to sanctions targeting Belarusian officials and companies, the EU is mulling the suspension of overflights of European airlines over Belarus, a landing ban for flag carrier Belavia in European airports, and the suspension of transits (including land) from Belarus to the EU, the French diplomat added, asking not to be named in line with policy.

Ryanair Is Flying Over Belarus Today (1:10 p.m.)

Flight FR3340 from Paphos, Cyprus, is scheduled to land at Talinn, Estonia, at 2:30 p.m. local time. The route takes the plane directly across Belarus territory, highlighting the mixed messaging coming out of Europe in response to Sunday’s incident.

The airspace over Belarus is part of a major route for flights between Asia and Europe, with some carriers including Deutsche Lufthansa AG and cargo hauler FedEx Corp. continuing to fly over the country on Monday. Airlines have routed traffic over Belarus to avoid the restive eastern Ukraine region that’s been off-limits since a Malaysian Airlines Boeing 777 jet was shot down there in 2014, killing 298 people.

Poland Orders Probe (12:20 p.m.)

Poland’s state prosecutor said it has ordered an investigation into the landing because the Ryanair jet was registered in Poland and therefore falls under Polish jurisdiction.

Estonia to Raise Issue at UN Security Council (12:00 p.m.)

Estonia plans to raise the Belarus issue at the Security Council and has already started consultations to have a discussion, public broadcaster ERR cited the country’s foreign minister, Eva-Maria Liimets, as saying.

Ryanair Cooperating with EU, NATO (11:50 a.m.)

The diversion of the Ryanair plane to Minsk on Sunday was an “act of aviation piracy,” the airline said in a statement today.

Ryanair said it was “fully cooperating” with the EU safety and security agencies as well as NATO, and wouldn’t comment further due to security reasons.

Kremlin Says U.S.-Russia Summit Plans Not Affected (11:45 a.m.)

Tensions between Moscow’s closest ally and the West over Minsk’s forcing of a Ryanair jet to land won’t affect Russia’s efforts to arrange a summit meeting between President Vladimir Putin and his U.S. Counterpart, Joe Biden, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.

“I wouldn’t combine all this into a single system,” Peskov told reporters on a conference call. “These are different things, after all.”

Peskov declined to comment on the details of the case, including on whether Belarus gave Russia advance warning of its decision to force the plane to land or whether Moscow’s agents were involved. “Our special services are in the closest possible contact,” he said, adding that he doesn’t have detailed information about the Ryanair jet.

Russia Calls Western Reaction ‘Shocking’ (11:15 a.m.)

Western countries are showing double standards, according to Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova. “It’s shocking that the West is calling the incident in Belarus’s airspace ‘shocking,’” she wrote in a Facebook post.

Zakharova cited past examples of what she said were western governments forcing planes to land, such as a 2013 episode when the plane of Bolivian President Evo Morales had to land in Austria as the U.S. searched for Edward Snowden, as evidence that the U.S. and its allies use the same tactics.

U.K. Joins Calls for Sanctions (10:40 a.m.)

Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab added to the voices calling for further sanctions against Belarus and the immediate release of Protasevich. In a statement, Raab condemned the arrest, adding “Mr Lukashenko must be held to account for his outlandish actions.”

Russian Senator Defends Belarus (10:35 a.m.)

“Formally, there was a bomb threat, so everything was done properly,” Vladimir Dzhabarov, first deputy chairman of the International Affairs committee in the upper house of parliament, said in a phone interview Monday. “I don’t see anything unusual or unacceptable in the actions of the Belarusian authorities.”

The arrest of Raman Pratasevich, the journalist, was justified, he said. “This person was sitting abroad and criticizing his homeland,” he said. “It’s a warning to Tsikhanouskaya,” he said, referring to exiled opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya.

EU Mulls Sanction Options (10:25 a.m.)

Of the possible options for EU action, sanctions against individuals and entities would likely be the simplest, according to a senior official close to the European talks.

Other options, such as the suspension all flights by EU airlines over Belarus and the suspension of all transit -- including ground travel -- between Belarus and the EU, would trigger increased costs for European companies, the official said.

‘State-Sponsored Hijacking’ (10:10 a.m.)

“This was a case of state-sponsored hijacking,” Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary said in comments broadcast by RTE Radio. The airline has to do a “detailed debrief today with the NATO and EU authorities” after the incident, which he said saw passengers and crew held under armed guard.

It appears the intent of Belarusian authorities was to remove a journalist and his traveling companion, O’Leary said. “We believe there was also some KGB agents offloaded off the aircraft as well,” he said.

Irish Minister Calls for Tough EU Response (10:00 a.m.)

“This was effectively aviation piracy, state sponsored,” Irish foreign minister Simon Coveney told RTE Radio. The EU’s response “has to be clear, tough, and needs to happen quickly,” he said.

Belarus’s Bonds Tumble (9:30 a.m.)

Worries over potential sanctions are scaring away bond investors. Belarus’s dollar bonds due 2031 tanked early on Monday, pushing yields up 23 basis points to a one-month high of 7.48%. The bonds traded at a yield of above 8% in August after authorities cracked down on protesters following Lukashenko’s claim to a landslide election victory.

Flights Avoid Belarus (9:25 a.m.)

Wizz Air Holdings Plc, Eastern Europe’s biggest discount carrier, said it has rerouted a service from the Ukrainian capital Kyiv to Tallinn in Estonia to avoid Belarusian airspace. A spokesman said in an email that the Budapest-based company is “continuously monitoring and evaluating the situation.”

Latvia’s national carrier Airbaltic has decided to avoid Belarusian air space “for the time being,” Latvian Transport Minister Talis Linkaits said in interview with Latvijas Radio.

Poland to Call for More Sanctions Against Lukashenko (9:22 a.m.)

Belarus’s neighbor, Poland, will propose new sanctions against Lukashenko’s government at Monday’s EU meeting, according to Deputy Foreign Minister Pawel Jablonski. He declined to specify the type of measures Warsaw will seek, saying the government wants to consult with EU partners first.

(An earlier version of this story corrected the spelling of “Minsk” in first bullet point)

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