WASHINGTON: The United States, Canada and European allies stepped up pressure Thursday on the regime of Belarus strongman Alexander Lukashenko, widening sanctions on officials and businesses for allegedly stoking a migration crisis for political reasons.
The sanctions targeted senior security and justice officials, prominent media figures, one of Lukashenko's sons, defense-related firms and a major fertilizer exporter.
Also targeted were state airline Belavia, tour operators and hotels that have collaborated with the government in luring thousands of Middle Eastern migrants to the Polish and Lithuanian borders, sparking a migration and humanitarian crisis.
The sanctions were in response to "continuing attacks on human rights and fundamental freedoms in Belarus, disregard for international norms and repeated acts of repression," said a joint statement from the United States, Britain, Canada and the European Union.
The statement demanded Lukashenko's regime "immediately and completely halt its orchestrating of irregular migration across its borders with the EU."
"We call for the regime to unconditionally and without delay release its almost 900 political prisoners (and) end its campaign of repression," it added.
In Minsk, the Belarusian foreign ministry slammed the sanctions.
"The depth of the absurdity of the EU's decision on the latest sanctions against sovereign Belarus and its very content is by now difficult to comprehend," the ministry said in a statement.
The ministry also accused the West of "demonising" Belarus and vowed "tough" retaliatory measures.
"The burden of responsibility is placed on Belarus while blatantly ignoring the true causes of the global migration crisis," it said.
The EU sanctions targeted mainly entities and individuals, including military commanders, involved in the migrant crisis, as well as judges involved in political repression.
"The European Union will not tolerate the orchestrated and politically motivated instrumentalisation of human beings by the Lukashenko regime," the EU said in a statement.
Separately, Britain named several prominent journalists it called "propagandists" for the Lukashenko government, and also blacklisted Belaruskali, one of the world's leading producers of potash fertilizers, a top earner of foreign exchange for the country.
"These sanctions continue to target important sources of revenue to the Lukashenko regime and place severe restrictions on those responsible for some of the worst anti-democratic acts in Belarus," said Foreign Secretary Liz Truss.
Washington said its sanctions target "migrant smuggling and victimization of migrants."
It blacklisted several defense companies, Belarusian Potash Company, which handles exports for Belaruskali, and Dmitry Lukashenko, the second son of leader Lukashenko.
Dmitry Lukashenko runs the Presidential Sports Club, which the US Treasury called "part of an alleged corruption scheme."
"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," US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement.
It was the fifth round of coordinated Belarus sanctions, which freeze assets and impose travel and business restrictions on those targeted.
US sanctions seek to lock those named, both companies and individuals, out of the global financial system.
The British foreign office said the sanctions are "carefully targeted to build pressure on Lukashenko, state institutions and those around him to change behaviour, while minimizing, as far as possible, any unintended consequences on the wider population in Belarus."
The United States, European Union, Britain and Canada have steadily expanded sanctions on Belarus over Lukashenko's crackdown on protests against his disputed 2020 re-election.
Western capitals have refused to recognize the vote, arguing it was rigged, but Lukashenko has retained the support of Russia's President Vladimir Putin.
The regime has allegedly responded to the mounting sanctions by encouraging thousands of migrants -- mainly Syrians, Iraqis and Yemenis -- to fly to Belarus in the hopes of entering the EU through Poland.
About 2,000 people last month camped out on the border in freezing conditions before the makeshift camp was cleared out by border guards and the migrants moved to a logistics center.
Lukashenko denies he is responsible for the influx.