The United States, European Union, Britain and Canada slapped simultaneous sanctions on dozens of officials, organisations and companies in Belarus, with the EU taking aim at those accused of taking part in a “hybrid attack” on the bloc using migrants.
The four have targeted Belarus since President Alexander Lukashenko won another term in office last year after elections that the West and other observers say were fraudulent, and over the security crackdown on peaceful protesters that followed.
The US State Department said the US Treasury had “identified three aircraft as blocked property and designated 32 individuals and entities, including Belarusian state-owned enterprises, government officials, and other persons, who support the regime and facilitate its repression”.
Meanwhile, the EU imposed travel bans and asset freezes on 17 more people, including senior border guard and military officials, government representatives and judges.
Britain said it had imposed sanctions “on eight Belarusian individuals responsible for repression and human rights violations”. It also froze the assets of OJSC Belaruskali, one of the world’s largest producers of potash fertiliser, which is a major source of revenue for the Belarus government.
The US state department said “today’s actions demonstrate our unwavering determination to act in the face of a brutal regime that increasingly represses Belarusians, undermines the peace and security of Europe, and continues to abuse people seeking only to live in freedom”.
At least 8,000 migrants, many of them Iraqis, have entered the EU without authorisation this year from Belarus. Lithuania and Poland declared a state of emergency at their borders to stop people crossing. Several people died, trapped in the Poland/Belarus border zone in sub-zero temperatures.
“Migrants wishing to cross the union’s external border have been flying to Minsk on board flights operated by Belavia from a number of Middle Eastern countries, in particular Lebanon, UAE (United Arab Emirates) and Turkey,” the sanctions text said.
Cham Wing Airlines, which operates flights from Syria to Belarus, is also in the EU’s sights.
It stands accused of ramping up flights from Damascus to Minsk over the summer and setting up new offices in the Belarus capital to better organise the shuttles.
Also on the list is state tourism company Tsentrkurort, which the EU claims helped at least 51 Iraqis obtain visas to Belarus and organised bus transport for them to the borders.
The EU also took aim at VIP Grub, a passport and visa service based in Istanbul, Turkey. The sanctions list said the company “organises trips to Belarus with the explicit intention of facilitating migration to the EU. VIP Grub actively advertises migration to the EU”.
EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said the bloc would not tolerate “the orchestrated and politically motivated instrumentalisation of human beings by the Lukashenko regime”.
“This cynical strategy of exploiting vulnerable people is an abhorrent attempt to deflect attention from the regime’s continued disregard for international law, fundamental freedoms and human rights in Belarus,” Mr Borrell said in a statement.