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Hind Al Soulia - Riyadh - BRUSSELS — European Union leaders have agreed on a set of sanctions to be laid against Belarus after a Ryanair flight from Greece to Lithuania was forced to land in Minsk and a Belarusian journalist on board was detained.
In addition to blocking the use of the 27-country bloc's airspace and airports, the EU is expected to hit individual officials linked to the incident with sanctions, the Associated Press has reported.
EU leaders came to the decision at an emergency summit held on Monday and are expected to enforce the sanctions as soon as legal proceedings will allow.
The decision came as Roman Protasevich, the journalist who was detained in Belarus, appeared in a video posted online on Monday, saying he was in good health but was being held in a pre-trial detention facility in Minsk.
In the video, the journalist acknowledges that he played a part in organizing mass protests in Minsk last year, Reuters reported.
Protasevich's detention has sparked international outrage, with the European Commission's president warning that Belarus would face "severe consequences" for its actions.
"There will be a very strong answer because it is outrageous behavior and Lukashenko and his regime have to understand that this will have severe consequences," Ursula von der Leyen told reporters on Monday.
EU leaders will discuss further sanctions, she said, including against business and economic entities that are financing the regime and against the aviation sector in Belarus after the "hijacking" of the flight.
Belarus forced Sunday's Ryanair flight FR4978 from Athens to Vilnius in Lithuania to divert before arresting Protasevich claiming that they had received a message from Palestinian militant group Hamas threatening to blow up a Lithuania-bound flight over Belarusian airspace unless the European Union condemned Israel over the conflict in the Gaza Strip.
Belarusian transport ministry director Artem Sikorski said that the message read: "We, Hamas soldiers, demand that Israel stop firing on the Gaza sector.
"We demand that the European Union cease its support for Israel (...) if our demands are not met a bomb will explode (on board of the Ryanair plane) over Vilnius."
Sikorski was speaking in the face of global condemnation after Belarus forced a flight from Athens to Lithuania carrying to prominent Belarusian dissident to land in Minsk. Roman Protasevich was then escorted from the plane and arrested.
Earlier on Monday, Belarus' foreign ministry insisted the country's authorities acted "in full conformity with international rules" and accused Europe of politicizing the incident.
"We are struck by the haste with which some countries and European structures have made openly belligerent statements," spokesman Anatoliy Glaz said.
Brussels said it had summoned Belarus' ambassador to the EU, Aleksandr Mikhnevich, to demand the journalist's release.
"Ambassador Mikhnevich was informed of the firm condemnation by the EU institutions and EU member states of the coercive act by which the Belarusian authorities have jeopardised the safety of passengers and crew," read a statement from the EU's foreign affairs service.
"Secretary-General Sannino conveyed the EU’s position that the outrageous action by Belarusian authorities constitutes another blatant attempt to silence all opposition voices in the country and demanded the immediate release of Mr Pratasevich."
The European Union's foreign affairs chief, Josep Borrell, said in a statement the arrest constitutes "yet another blatant attempt by Belarusian authorities to silence all opposition voices".
"In carrying out this coercive act, the Belarusian authorities have jeopardized the safety of passengers and crew. An international investigation into this incident must be carried out to ascertain any breach of international aviation rules," he added.
Lithuania said Belarus had effectively held EU citizens hostage by diverting the plane.
"The entire EU has been brutally attacked and must respond in the strictest way," its foreign ministry said.
It called on the 27-country bloc to consider issuing a joint EU recommendation to avoid entering Belarus airspace.
It also wants the International Civil Aviation Authority to strip Belarus of its membership.
US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said Washington "strongly condemn" the Belarusian regime's "brazen and shocking act to divert a commercial flight to arrest a journalist".
"We demand an international investigation and are coordinating with our partners on next steps," he wrote on Twitter.
Both Brussels and Washington have called for Pratasevich to be immediately released.
Britain's Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said London is "coordinating with our allies". "This outlandish action by Lukashenko will have serious implications," he said. — Euronews
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