Belarus’s isolation grows after journalist’s dramatic arrest

BRUSSELS, Belgium (AP) — Belarus’ isolation deepened yesterday as commercial planes avoided its airspace, the European Union worked up new sanctions, and a UN official said he was concerned for the welfare of an opposition journalist arrested in Minsk after being pulled off a plane that was diverted there in what the West called a State-sponsored hijacking.

The dramatic arrest has put a spotlight on Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko’s iron-fisted rule and suppression of dissent — but it was not clear what effect sanctions or other measures would have.

After his detention, Raman Pratasevich was seen in a brief video clip shown on Belarusian State television late Monday, speaking rapidly to say that he was confessing to some of the charges authorities have levelled against him. The spokesperson for the UN’s human rights office, Rupert Colville, said Pratasevich’s appearance was likely not voluntary and that he seemed to have bruising to his face, though it was difficult to tell from the footage.

The 26-year-old journalist and activist was arrested Sunday after Belarusian flight controllers ordered the Ryanair jetliner he was aboard to land, telling the crew that there was a bomb threat against the flight. A Belarusian fighter jet was scrambled to escort the plane.

In an unusually swift response to the arrest and flight diversion Monday, EU leaders agreed to ban Belarusian airlines from using the airspace and airports of the 27-nation bloc and impose sanctions on officials linked to the diversion.

They demanded Pratasevich’s release and urged the International Civil Aviation Organization to start an investigation into the flight diversion, while recommending European carriers avoid Belarus’ airspace. Polish carrier LOT and Baltic airlines have begun bypassing the country, while Air France, KLM, Lufthansa and others have all said they will follow suit.

Belarus has defended its actions and its transport ministry said yesterday that it has invited international aviation, US and EU authorities to investigate the flight’s diversion.

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