The European Union on Monday called on all E.U.- based airlines to stop flying over Belarus and began the process of banning Belarusian airlines from flying over the bloc’s airspace or landing in its airports — effectively blocking the country’s air connections to Western Europe.
The decision was announced Monday evening during a summit of European Union leaders in Brussels, and followed Belarus’s forced landing of a commercial flight between Athens and Vilnius, Lithuania, on Sunday.
After diverting the plane, the Belarusian authorities arrested Roman Protasevich, a young Belarusian dissident journalist on board. They also detained his partner, Sofia Sapega.
On Monday, the European Union leaders demanded the “immediate release of Roman Protasevich and Sofia Sapega and that their freedom of movement be guaranteed.”
Even before the airplane incident, the European Union had imposed sanctions on the strongman Belarusian leader, Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, and some of his associates.
But outraged over the forced landing of the Ryanair flight, European leaders wanted to step up the pressure, with the aviation-focused measures coming as a first step.
Leaders also pledged to add new sanctions against the Minsk regime, by imposing “additional listings of persons and entities as soon as possible.”
Some analysts had predicted that the European Union might be reluctant to ban flights over Belarus because such a move would create difficulties for European airlines.
Already, airlines are avoiding Ukraine, the country’s southern neighbor, because of its conflict with Russia. Putting Belarusian air space off limits as well presents serious routing difficulties for flights from Europe to Asia.
“Flying to Asia from Europe without crossing Belarus is likely too costly and challenging,” analysts from Eurasia Group, a research firm, wrote in a note on Monday.