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EU vows support for 'democratic' Belarus as Putin plays down diverted plane incident

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EU vows support for 'democratic' Belarus as Putin plays down diverted plane incident
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The EU's top diplomat said on Friday that the European Commission stands ready to support a future democratic Belarus, as more sanctions were imposed over an international flight being forced to land in Minsk.

Eighty-eight people, including President Lukashenko, and seven legal entities have already been sanctioned with an EU travel ban and asset freeze in response to political repression in the country.

"This plan, up to €3 billion, reflects the European Union's commitment to support Belarusian people once Belarus embarks on a democratic transition," Josep Borrel said.

Belarus opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya also spoke with acting Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte in The Hague on Friday.

The meeting came as the international community continued to condemn the diversion of a Ryanair flight to Minsk last Sunday so that Belarusian police could arrest an opposition journalist.

"We will do everything to protect individuals in Belarus from the impact of these sanctions," Rutte said. "But that will not always be easy. But we have to do everything to get to the regime; to Lukashenko and his people. We can only do that through targeted sanctions."

In talks with Lukashenko on Friday, Russian President Vladimir Putin played down the flight incident.

He accused the EU of "double standards", recalling an incident in 2013 when a plane from Moscow carrying former Bolivian president Evo Morales was forced to land in Vienna.

Belarusians isolated by flight ban

Journalist Roman Protasevich and his girlfriend Sofia Sapega were arrested after the Ryanair jet's crew was told to land by Belarusian flight controllers last Sunday, officially over a bomb threat.

The EU has denounced the incident as akin to air piracy and has since banned flights from Belarus, and on Europe-based airlines to avoid Belarusian airspace.

This, however, has also left dissident Belarusians with few options to get out of the country if they want to remain in the EU.

Belarus tightened restrictions at its land border in December. Those willing to cross must explain their reason, such as work, medical care or education, and can only do it once every six months.

“Shutting the borders turns Belarus into a can of rotting preserves," rights group organiser Tatsiana Hatsura-Yavorska told AP. "We are being turned into hostages."

More than 35,000 people have been arrested in Belarus after millions took part in pro-democracy protests last summer. Ms. Hatsura-Yavorska added: "The authorities have scaled up repressions in recent months to incite the atmosphere of fear."