European Union foreign ministers are discussing possible economic sanctions against Belarus as the Group of Seven (G7) industrialized countries called for journalist Raman Pratasevich's "immediate and unconditional release" amid a wave of international condemnation over Pratasevich's arrest after a flight he was travelling on was diverted to Minsk by Belarusian authorities.
"We will start discussing implementation of the sectorial and economic sanctions," EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said on May 27 as he entered the meeting between foreign ministers in Lisbon, adding that the hijacking of the plane and the detention of Pratasevich and his girlfriend was completely unacceptable.
Borrell added that work on a new round of sanctions on Belarusian individuals was at an advanced stage, but he didn't provide more details.
Several ministers have said EU sanctions should target sectors that most benefit the Belarusian leadership, such as the oil and potash sectors.
"It is clear that we will not be satisfied with small sanctions steps, but that we aim to target the economic structure and financial transactions in Belarus significantly with sanctions," German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas told reporters in Lisbon.
"We really need to find the sectors, the companies, who actually benefit the regime, but not hurting the people," Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis said, suggesting the oil-products sector was an option.
Another possibility floated would be the potash sector, according to Luxembourg's foreign minister, Jean Asselborn.
Belarusian strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka and his allies are already under a series of Western sanctions over a brutal crackdown on mass protests that followed his disputed reelection to a sixth term in August 2020.
Meanwhile, foreign ministers from the Group of Seven (G7) major industrialized nations called on May 27 for Pratasevich's "immediate and unconditional release."
"We demand the immediate and unconditional release" of Pratasevich, "as well as all other journalists and political prisoners held in Belarus," a joint statement published by the British government said.
The ministers from Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Britain, and the United States, along with the European Union "condemn in the strongest terms the unprecedented action by the Belarusian authorities," the statement added.
The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) agreed on May 27 to probe the forced grounding of the plane. The ICAO's 36-nation governing council acted after the United States and several allies demanded an investigation into the incident.
The ICAO would produce an interim report by June 25, said Irish Transport Minister Eamon Ryan. It will be a fact-finding investigation designed mainly to determine whether international aviation rules were breached. The ICAO has little scope to punish member states other than by suspending voting rights.
The Ryanair flight was diverted after Lukashenka ordered a MiG-29 fighter jet to accompany the aircraft because Belarusian authorities had received information there was a bomb on board the plane.
The threat turned out to be a hoax, though some critics have questioned the veracity of whether there was really a warning at all.
Europe's aviation regulator has already urged all airlines to avoid Belarusian airspace for safety reasons after the EU began to cut air links with the increasingly isolated Eastern European nation.
Belarusian national flag carrier Belavia said it had been forced to cancel flights to seven European countries and the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad until October 30 due to flight bans.
In his first public comments about the incident, Lukashenka vehemently dismissed the outrage on May 26 and accused the West of crossing "many red lines" with its reaction to the incident.
In an address to parliament, the Belarusian strongman, who has ruled the country since 1994, warned that Belarus was on the brink of an "icy war" with its enemies trying to undermine his rule.
Lukashenka continues to enjoy support from Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is hosting him for a meeting on May 28.
Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said May 26 there was no reason to doubt Lukashenka's version of events.
The 26-year-old Pratasevich is facing charges of being behind civil disturbances, an offense punishable by up to 15 years in prison.
He was a key administrator of the Telegram channel Nexta-Live, which has been covering the protests that broke out in Belarus following last year's presidential election.