The EU has agreed sanctions on Belarus following accusations of “state terrorism” and “aviation piracy” after the forced landing of a Ryanair plane in Minsk on Sunday.
Fake reports of a bomb threat led the plane, which was travelling from Athens to Lithuania with 171 passengers on board, to be diverted to Minsk. Belarusian President, Alexander Lukashenko, ordered a MiG-29 fighter to escort the Ryanair jet to the country’s capital. Journalist and opposition activist Roman Protasevich and his Russian girlfriend, Sofia Sapega, were led off the plane after it landed and taken into custody by Belarusian authorities.
Belarus playing “Russian roulette with the lives of innocent citizens”
The EU has agreed to ban Belarusian airlines from flying in European airspace and using its airports. EU-based airlines have been urged to avoid flying over Belarus. EU Council chief Charles Michel said: “We won’t tolerate that one can try to play Russian roulette with the lives of innocent civilians.”
Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab reflected the sanctions put in place by the bloc’s 27 member states and has also banned Belarus’s state airline from the UK. He warned British aircraft to stay out of Belarusian airspace, describing the incident as “a danger to civilian flights everywhere”.
Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said: “Hijacking of a civilian plane is an unprecedented act of state terrorism. It cannot go unpunished.”
O’Leary:”an act of aviation piracy”
A statement issued on Ryanair’s Twitter feed on Monday read: “Ryanair condemns the unlawful actions of Belarusian authorities who diverted Ryanair’s flight FR4978 to Minsk yesterday (May 23), which was an act of aviation piracy. This is now being dealt with by EU safety and security agencies and NATO. Ryanair is full cooperating with them and we cannot comment further for security reasons.”
Michael O’Leary also referred to the incident as “a case of state-sponsored hijacking… state-sponsored piracy” on Newstalk radio.He added: “It appears the intent of the authorities was to remove a journalist and his travelling companion… we believe there were some KGB agents offloaded at the airport as well.”
After a ‘search’ revealed there were no explosives on board, the aircraft was allowed to continue its flight from Athens to the Lithuanian capital Vilnius seven hours later.
Journalist is accused of terrorism and organising mass riots
Protasevich is the co-founder of Polish-based online news service Nexta, which has broadcast footage of mass protests against Lukashenko. He has been accused by the Belarusian regime of terrorism, organising mass riots and of inciting social hatred, allegations he denies.A video of Protasevich was released late yesterday, after his arrest. In the video, he tells viewers he is in good health in a pre-trial detention facility, and is being treated “lawfully”.
The journalist, who is seen with a number of marks on his head within the footage, makes an apparent confession to “plotting riots” in Minsk last year. Critics, including Belarus’ exiled opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya and US President Joe Biden, have questioned whether Protasevich was put under physical pressure to make the statement by Belarusian authorities.
President Biden urged to follow EU and UK sanctions
President Biden has been urged to follow both the EU and UK and prohibit American airline companies from flying over Belarus.
Witnesses on the flight described how Protasevich begged crew not to land the plane, with one passenger saying he cried: “They’re going to kill me, don’t give me up”. He is reported to have told fellow passengers: “The death penalty awaits me here,” when he realised that the plane had landed in Minsk.
Protasevich’s father has spoken of his fears over his son’s safety, adding that he hopes international pressure against Belarus will work.