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Belarus Bans Most Citizens From Foreign Travel, Citing COVID-19

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The travel ban comes following international outrage over the forced diversion of an airliner en route from Greece to Lithuania to Minsk, where an opposition activist was arrested.

Belarus has temporarily banned most of its citizens from crossing the border, citing the COVID-19 pandemic, a move the opposition says is a further step to limit freedoms amid a brutal crackdown on dissent by authoritarian ruler Alyaksandr Lukashenka.

The State Border Committee said that the travel ban applied to all residents except for Belarusian civil servants on official trips, state transport staff, and residents with permanent residence in other countries.

The committee added that air travel for Belarusian citizens and foreigners remained open on condition that they have self-isolated for at least 10 days before departure.

The move to tighten travel rules comes after international outrage erupted over Lukashenka's ordering of a fighter jet to force a Ryanair airliner, which was en route from Greece to Lithuania, to land in Minsk.

Belarus said it had received a bomb threat.

Once the plane was on the ground, opposition blogger Raman Pratasevich and his girlfriend, who were aboard the plane, were arrested. No bomb was found on the plane.

Pratasevich, 26, is facing charges of being behind "civil disturbances," the term used by the government to describe the unprecedented protests against Lukashenka and his rule following a disputed August 2020 presidential election that the opposition says was rigged and many Western governments have refused to acknowledge.

Crisis In Belarus

Read our coverage as Belarusians continue to demand the resignation of Alyaksandr Lukashenka amid a brutal crackdown on protesters. The West refuses to recognize him as the country's legitimate leader after an August 9 election considered fraudulent.

Valery Kavaleuski, the foreign-affairs adviser to Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the opposition leader who many say actually won the vote, criticized the travel ban, saying that Lukashenka's move to "severely" limit the right of Belarusians to travel was illegal.

"The Constitution stipulates no conditions at all. Outright violation of the law," Kavaleuski tweeted in response to the new regulations.

The decision to intercept the Ryanair flight and arrest Pratasevich has drawn additional sanctions from the United States and threats of sanctions and more serious actions from the European Union.

Europe's air-safety regulator last week advised operators to avoid flying over Belarus, but in a new safety directive issued on June 2 said that "there are still operators having their principal place of business in [EU members] that continue to operate" in the country's airspace.

The European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) has now beefed up its stance on the use of Belarusian airspace, calling on national authorities to tell their aircraft operators "that conducting operations in Belarus airspace...is no longer allowed, unless required for safe operations in unforeseen circumstances."

The Cologne-based EASA oversees regional safety but lacks the authority to issue an operational ban directly.

In London, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg on June 2 reiterated the Western alliance's call for the immediate release of Pratasevich and his friend, as well as for an "independent, impartial, international investigation" into the "absolutely unacceptable" incident.

"And I welcome sanctions imposed by the United Kingdom and other NATO allies and the EU as a clear message about consequences when the regime in Minsk behaves the way it did," he added.

Speaking alongside Stoltenberg, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said it was important that the allies stand together in protest against "the appalling, outrageous incident."

Lukashenka, who has run Belarus since 1994, has directed a brutal postelection crackdown in which almost 30,000 people have been detained, many sentenced to lengthy prison terms, and hundreds beaten, several killed, and journalists targeted.

Rights groups say there is considerable evidence of detainees being tortured.

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