'Outrageous': PM condemns Belarus regime, calls for journalist's release

'Outrageous': PM condemns Belarus regime, calls for journalist's release

Amid a diplomatic incident over flags at the hockey world championship in Latvia, the governing body of the sport on Tuesday sided with Belarus, which is under worldwide pressure after forcing a passenger jet carrying an opposition journalist to land in Minsk.

Ryanair Flight FR4978, originating in Athens, was diverted in Belarusian airspace about 10 kilometers from Vilnius, Lithuania - its planned destination - because of an alleged bomb threat.

In unusually swift action at a summit in Brussels, EU leaders agreed Monday to ban Belarusian airlines from using the airspace and airports of the 27-nation bloc, imposed sanctions on officials linked to Sunday's flight diversion, and urged the International Civil Aviation Organization to start an investigation into the episode some described as state terrorism or piracy.

Exiled opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya urged the worldwide community to go further in isolating the regime.

"The behaviour of the Belarus regime is illegal ... and completely unacceptable".

"Please be informed that the Government of the Republic of Belarus has taken (the) decision to close the Embassy … in Canada", the statement reads.

Air France said in a statement it had "taken note" of the conclusions of Monday's European Union summit and had suspended flights over Belarus "until further notice".

Once on the ground, Belarusian journalist Raman Pratasevich - who had been living in exile - and his girlfriend Sofia Sapega were taken off the plane and arrested before the airliner was allowed to continue on its journey.

Mr Lukashenko has been president of Belarus since the post was established in 1994 and won re-election for a sixth time in 2020 with 80% of the vote, in a ballot deemed "neither free nor fair" by the EU.

Even as the West condemned Belarus, the crackdown continued Tuesday, when Pavel Seviarynets, the leader of the opposition Christian-Democratic Party, was sentenced to seven years in prison on charges of organizing mass riots.

He tweeted: 'The video of Roman Protasevich makes for deeply distressing viewing.

US President Joe Biden slammed the forced diversion of the plane and arrest of Protasevich as "a direct affront to global norms" and said the video appeared to have been made "under duress".

Biden expressed his support for the European Union's call for economic sanctions in response to the incident.

The detained journalist's demeanor in the video alarmed his father, Dzmitry, who told Reuters that his son's nose appeared to have been broken, "because the shape of it is changed", and that his remarks were out of character.

"It's clear that he was physically harmed because you can see signs of a beating on his face", he said. "Those were not his words. he was reading something out that he was told to read out".

Ryanair Flight 4978 had already begun its descent into the Lithuanian capital when the pilot announced that the plane would be suddenly diverting to Minsk, capital of neighbouring Belarus.

Britain also issued instructions for British aircraft to avoid Belarusian airspace while Ukraine made a decision to halt direct flights between the two countries and over Belarus.

"The scenario as reported is a shocking assault on civil aviation and an assault on global law". More than 35,000 people have been arrested since the protests began, with thousands more beaten by security forces.

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