President Joe Biden’s administration on Friday announced it would sanction members of the Belarusian government amid international outrage over the forced landing of a commercial flight to arrest an opposition journalist.
Hours after a meeting between Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in a statement that the United States was developing a list of targeted sanctions against key members of the government of this Eastern European country.
Without naming who would be sanctioned, she said they were “associated with continued human rights violations and corruption, the falsification of the 2020 elections and the events of May 23,” referring to the date on which the plane was forced to land.
Calling on Lukashenko to allow “a credible international investigation” into the incident, she said the United States was suspending a 2019 agreement between Washington and Minsk that allowed carriers from either country to use the airspace of the other.
His comments came amid widespread calls for the release of Belarusian journalist Roman Protasevich and his Russian girlfriend who were traveling aboard the commercial. Ryanair airliner from Greece to Lithuania On Sunday, when Belarusian authorities reported what turned out to be a false bomb threat to force the plane to land in the country’s capital, Minsk.
The couple were subsequently arrested and remain in detention, despite mounting international pressure for their release.
The United States and its European allies have rejected the Belarusian version of events, claiming that Lukahenko forced the plane down to arrest the journalist, who previously edited the Nexta Telegram channel who was very critical of his government .
In response, the European Union sealed its airspace to Belarusian airlines, and some European airlines chose to bypass Belarusian airspace altogether.
The Federal Aviation Administration also advised airlines on Friday to use “extreme caution” when considering flying in Belarusian airspace, Psaki said.
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Lukashenko ruled the former Soviet republic of 9.3 million people for almost 27 years, relentlessly quelling dissent. He faced unprecedented protests after being re-elected to a sixth term last year after many considered the election results to be rigged.
He responded with a fierce crackdown, detaining thousands of people. Some protesters alleged beatings and ill-treatment in detention.
His main opponent, Svetlana Tsikhanouskaya, fled to neighboring Lithuania under pressure from the government shortly after the elections.
After calling for demonstrations in solidarity with opponents of the Lukashenko regime, demonstrations took place in several cities including London, Warsaw and Vilnius.
Increasingly isolated by the United States and its Western allies after the plane crash, Lukashenko turned to one of his only remaining allies, Russia on Friday when he met Putin.
The Russian leader offered his support and called Western criticism of the plane’s landing “an explosion of emotion”.
Reuters and The Associated Press contributed.