EU leaders to discuss sanctions over forced landing of flight in Belarus as UK calls for immediate release of arrested journalist onboard

Sanctions under discussion
EU leaders will discuss possible sanctions against President Alexander Lukashenkos regime on Monday evening on the first day of a two day summit in Brussels. 
The arrest of the founder and editor of Nexta, a social media channel that reported on mass protests that broke out last summer against Mr Lukashenko, is now expected to dominate talks over dinner.
This is yet another blatant attempt by the Belarusian authorities to silence all opposition voices, a statement from Josep Borrell, the EUs chief diplomat said. 
We call for the immediate release of Mr Pratasevich, Mr Borrell said, An international investigation into this incident must be carried out to ascertain any breach of international aviation rules.
The EU will consider the consequences of this action, including taking measures against those responsible, Mr Borrell said, raising the prospect of the bloc imposing sanctions on Belarus. 
Measures could include economic sanctions and targeted sanctions at officials, as well as the banning of Belarus’ national airline from EU airports.
Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, said those responsible for the Ryanair hijacking must be sanctioned. 
The outrageous and illegal behaviour of the regime in Belarus will have consequences, she said. 
Alexander De Croo, the prime minister of Belgium, said that the European Council needed to give a clear and unequivocal message.  
We have to consider sanctions, including banning Belavia [Belarus national airline] from landing in EU airports, he tweeted. 
Simon Coveney, Ireland’s foreign minister, told the RTE broadcaster he would have “no problem” with closing Belorusian airspace.
He said, “(The EU) needs to make some clear decisions that send a very strong signal to a regime in Belarus that has no democratic legitimacy and is behaving as a dictatorship, repressing their own people, expelling foreign journalists, silencing civil society and human rights defenders.”
MEPs from the influential European People’s Party  (EPP) called on EU leaders to make “bold” decisions at the summit.  
They demanded a no-flight zone over Belarus, the swifter adoption of pending sanctions against Minks for last year’s rigged election and the release of the imprisoned journalist and his partner. 
“This outrageous illegal incident must have strong consequences. No flights to Belarus, no flights from Belarus, no flights over Belarus. This must be the EUs answer, said Marian-Jean Marinescu MEP, the EPP group’s transport spokesman.
‘Kidnapping’ condemned 
German and French officials and ministers also condemned the incident, which Tom Tugendhat, the chair of the UKs Foreign Affairs Committee, said was air piracy and kidnapping. 
Mr Raab will set out further details of the UK’s response to Belarus over the arrest of the opposition activist.
The EU was already preparing a fourth round of sanctions against Belarus after the rigged election and crackdown by the regime last year. 
Along with the United States, Britain and Canada, the EU has already imposed asset freezes and travel bans on almost 90 officials, including President Alexander Lukashenko.
EU sanctions require the unanimous support of the blocs 27 member states. 
Mondays summit dinner is expected to be too soon for the measures to be prepared for approval but leaders are expected to strongly condemn the arrest and call for Mr Pratasevichs release. 
Nato ambassadors are to discuss the forced landing on Tuesday. 
Russia on Monday said it was shocked by the Western outcry over Belarus’s diversion of a passenger plane carrying an opposition activist.
“We are shocked that the West calls the incident in Belarusian air space ‘shocking,'” Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said on Facebook, accusing Western nations of “kidnappings, forced landings and illegal arrests”.
Journalist in exile  
Roman Protasevich was born in 1995 in Minsk into a military family.  He became involved in opposition politics as a teenager, and was kicked out of high school after being arrested at a protest in 2011.
He briefly studied journalism and worked for several outlets, including Euro Radio and Radio Free Europe before joining Nexta, a channel on the Telegraph messaging app.
Nexta, a play on the Belarusian word for “someone” because its updates are anonymous, won a reputation for speed, accuracy and independence, but drew the wrath of Alexander Lukashenko’s government.
In late 2019 he fled to Poland after a colleague was arrested. He was charged with several criminal cases in absentia.
He was in charge of the day-to-day running of the Telegram channel when protests erupted against Lukashenko’s regime following disputed elections in August 2020, and left Nexta in September that year.
In November 2020 Mr Protasevich and Stepan Putilo, his Nexta co-founder, were charged with terrorism and placed on the same register as suspected members of the Islamic State group.
On May 6 this year, Mr Lukashenko issued a decree stripping Mr Protasevich’s father, who served 29 years in the country’s armed forces, of his rank as a lieutenant colonel in the reserves.
Mr Protasevich and his girlfriend, a 23 year old Russian citizen currently studying in Lithuania, were arrested in Minsk after their flight from Athens to Vilnius was intercepted over Belarus on May 23.