Warsaw (AFP) -
The parents of a jailed Belarusian journalist pleaded for help Thursday as it emerged that Russia is blocking European airline flights that avoid Belarus airspace in a diplomatic battle over his arrest.
The G7 global powers also demanded Minsk release Roman Protasevich and the EU's foreign policy chief threatened hard-hitting economic sanctions.
Belarus's strongman President Alexander Lukashenko sparked international outrage by dispatching a fighter jet Sunday to intercept a Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius carrying Roman Protasevich, 26, and his girlfriend Sofia Sapega, 23.
A nervous-looking Protasevich was last seen in a video released by Belarusian authorities on Monday in which he was seen supposedly admitting to helping to organise mass unrest, a charge that could land him in jail for 15 years.
'I want you to relay our appeal everywhere, throughout the world, to government representatives, to EU countries, to EU leaders, to US leaders: I am appealing, I am begging, help me free my son,' his mother Natalia told journalists in Warsaw, visibly moved.
Roman's father, Dmitry said his son was 'a tough man' and 'a hero'.
'Throughout his life he fought for the truth and passed it on to people, which is why Lukashenko committed this despicable act,' he said.
The couple and their lawyer confirmed that they have not had any communication with their son since his arrest.
- 'Immediate and unconditional release' -
Foreign ministers of the Group of Seven wealthy nations on Thursday demanded the 'immediate and unconditional release' of Protasevich, 'as well as all other journalists and political prisoners held in Belarus', in a joint statement published by the British government.
The European Union's foreign policy chief Josep Borrell told AFP that member states were considering 'sectoral' economic sanctions against Belarus, targeting big exports such as potash.
The bloc was also looking at 'targeted sanctions' against the Belarusian authorities to add to the 88 regime figures and seven companies already on a blacklist over a brutal crackdown on the opposition after last year's disputed presidential election.
'Europeans are still hesitant about economic sanctions, but this time, we really have to take measures that Lukashenko will feel,' Borrell said in an interview in Lisbon on the eve of an informal meeting of foreign ministers.
'I don't think it will take a long time to decide. If we want to do it, we can do it quickly,' he insisted.
At a briefing in Vilnius, where she fled to after last year's election, exiled Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya on Thursday called for an 'economic boycott of the regime'.
Christophe Deloire, the head of media rights watchdog Reporters Sans Frontieres (Reporters Without Borders) was also in Lithuania to file a legal complaint against Lukashenko with prosecutors investigating Sunday's incident.
'We came here because we want to send a signal that we support the journalists in Belarus,' said Deloire.
- Air links cut -
The UN civil aviation agency was meanwhile due to hold an urgent meeting Thursday to discuss Belarus after Western powers on the UN Security Council called on it to investigate Minsk's diversion of the Ryanair flight carrying Protasevich.
The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) Council will meet as the consequences of the incident play out in Europe's airspace.
EU countries are banning Belarusian carriers and the EU has also urged airlines to avoid Belarusian airspace.
On Thursday, Austrian Airlines said it had cancelled a Vienna-Moscow flight after Russian authorities did not approve a route change for it to avoid Belarusian airspace.
An Air France flight from Paris to Moscow on Wednesday had to be cancelled for the same reason.
The ICAO has no power to impose sanctions. But European leaders this week agreed to cut air links with Belarus and told airlines to avoid the country's airspace.
The call at the UN for the ICAO investigation echoes an earlier one from NATO. But Russia's support for Minsk means the UN Security Council is unlikely to agree a collective statement.
- 'Europe's last dictator' -
A defiant Lukashenko said he had 'acted lawfully to protect our people' from an alleged bomb threat on the plane, in an address to parliament on Wednesday.
The criticism was nothing more than another attempt by his opponents to undermine his rule, he added.
Lukashenko -- often dubbed 'Europe's last dictator' -- is facing some of the strongest international pressure of his nearly 27 years ruling ex-Soviet Belarus.
He and his allies are already under a series of Western sanctions over a brutal crackdown on mass protests that followed his disputed re-election to a sixth term last August.
But he continues to enjoy solid support from Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is hosting the Belarusian leader on Friday.