President Joe Biden’s administration said it would sanction members of the Belarusian government on Friday amid international outrage over the forced landing of a commercial flight to confiscate an opposition journalist.
Within hours of a meeting between Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in a statement that the United States drew up a list of targeted sanctions against key members of the government of the Eastern European country.
Without specifying who would be sanctioned, she said they were “linked to ongoing human rights abuses and corruption, the falsification of the 2020 elections and the events of May 23,” referring to the date the plane was forced to land .
She called on Lukashenko to allow “a credible international investigation” into the incident and said the US would suspend a Agreement of 2019 between Washington and Minsk, which allowed airlines from each country to use the other’s airspace.
Their comments came amid widespread calls for the release of Belarusian journalist Roman Protasevich and his Russian girlfriend, who were traveling aboard the commercial Ryanair passenger plane from Greece to Lithuania on Sunday, when the Belarusian authorities reported a false bomb danger to force the plane to land in the state capital Minsk.
The couple were subsequently arrested and remain in custody despite mounting international pressure for their release.
The US and its European allies have rejected the Belarusian version of events, claiming that Lukahenko forced the plane to arrest the journalist who previously worked on the Nexta Telegram channel, who was extremely critical of his government.
In response, the European Union sealed its airspace to Belarusian airlines, and some European airlines chose to bypass Belarusian airspace altogether.
The Federal Aviation Administration also advised airlines on Friday to “exercise extreme caution” when considering flying in Belarusian airspace, Psaki said.
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Lukashenko has headed the former Soviet republic with 9.3 million inhabitants for almost 27 years and relentlessly suppresses dissent. After his re-election for a sixth term last year, he saw unprecedented protests after many viewed the election results as rigged.
He responded with a violent crackdown and detained thousands. Some protesters alleged beatings and ill-treatment in custody.
His main opponent, Svetlana Tsikhanouskayafled to neighboring Lithuania under government pressure shortly after the election.
After calling for solidarity demonstrations with opponents of the Lukashenko regime, protests took place in several cities, including London, Warsaw and Vilnius.
Increasingly isolated from the US and its Western allies after the plane incident, Lukashenko turned to one of his only remaining allies, Russia, when he met with Putin on Friday.
The Russian leader offered his support, describing the Western criticism of the plane landing as “A burst of emotion.”
Reuters and The Associated Press contributed.