Minsk: Belarus's regime was increasingly isolated Tuesday as Europe cut air links and calls grew for more action over its diversion of an airliner and arrest of a dissident on board.
After weathering a wave of protests and Western sanctions last year, President Alexander Lukashenko was facing extraordinary new pressure over Sunday's rerouting of the Ryanair flight to Minsk and arrest of opposition journalist Roman Protasevich.
More Western leaders joined calls demanding Protasevich's release, after the European Union agreed at a summit on Monday to ban Belarusian airlines from the bloc and called on EU-based carriers not to fly over its airspace.
Air France, Finnair and Singapore Airlines became the latest carriers to suspend flights over Belarus, following Scandinavian airline SAS, Germany's Lufthansa and Latvia-based regional airline airBaltic.
Opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya said the international community needed to go further, urging the United States to take action in a call with US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan.
Speaking to reporters in Vilnius where she lives in exile after a disputed election last August, Tikhanovskaya called for "comprehensive" international measures to force the regime to give up power.
"This is the time to act," she said.
"Suspension of flights over Belarus doesn't solve the real problem. The problem is the terrorist regime that rigged elections last year."
Call to join G7 summit
She asked for the Belarusian opposition to be invited to next month's G7 summit in Britain, an initiative that sources close to French President Emmanuel Macron said Paris supported.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson joined calls for Protasevich to be released, warning: "Belarus's actions will have consequences."
The UN rights office also demanded the immediate release of Protasevich and his Russian girlfriend Sofia Sapega, who was also arrested after the Athens-to-Vilnius flight landed in Minsk.
EU leaders on Monday warned they would adopt further "targeted economic sanctions" against the Belarusian authorities to add to the 88 regime figures and seven companies on a blacklist.
Lukashenko and his allies are already under a series of Western sanctions over a brutal crackdown on opposition protests that followed his disputed re-election to a sixth term last August.
Protasevich, 26, was a co-founder of the Nexta Telegram channel, which helped organise the protests that were the biggest challenge to Lukashenko's long rule.
He had been living between Poland and Lithuania.
Belarusian state television late on Monday broadcast a 30-second video of Protasevich confirming that he was in prison in Minsk and "confessing" to charges of organising mass unrest.
'Not his words'
The footage showed Protasevich - who could face 15 years in jail - with dark markings visible on his forehead, saying he was being treated "according to the law".
US President Joe Biden said the video appeared to have been made "under duress". He welcomed the EU moves and said Washington was looking at "appropriate options to hold accountable those responsible."
Protasevich's father Dmitry Protasevich told AFP in Poland that it looked like his son had been harmed and was under pressure.
"He would never speak like that. Those were not his words... he was reading something out that he was told to read out," he said.
Minsk said it had reacted to secure the flight after receiving a bomb threat, supposedly from Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, but European leaders dismissed the claim as implausible.
The transport ministry on Tuesday released a transcript of the call between Minsk air traffic control and the Ryanair flight, in which the crew was told "you have a bomb a board" and urged it to land in Minsk.
Lukashenko - who scrambled a Belarusian fighter jet to intercept the Ryanair flight - has remained defiant in the face of sanctions with help from his main backer Russia.
'Belarusians cannot afford flights'
Moscow has dismissed the outrage in the West, saying Belarus was acting reasonably and within the law when the plane was diverted.
Last year's protests gripped the country for months, with tens of thousands taking to the streets to denounce Lukashenko's regime.
The 66-year-old leader has ruled Belarus with an iron fist for over two decades and responded to the demonstrations with a violent crackdown, detaining thousands, many of whom reported torture and abuse in custody.
Many protest leaders - including Tikhanovskaya who claimed victory in the August vote - fled the country and the demonstrations have dwindled.
Authorities have imposed a series of jail sentences on organisers, participants and journalists over the protests, including seven activists who were sentenced Tuesday to jail terms of four to seven years.
On the streets of Minsk, many opposition supporters welcomed the flight bans, saying Belarusians were largely unable to travel anyway and more pressure was needed for change.
"An ordinary Belarusian will not suffer from this. Ordinary Belarusians cannot afford flights," said Valentina, a retired teacher who like others who spoke to AFP was afraid to give her last name.
Severin, a blogger, said such moves were needed to force the regime to accept the results of last August's vote.
"Should crimes be ignored so that someone can go on business trips or to resorts? Not when war is declared. And war has been declared on us since August 9 last year."