The European Union has agreed to impose sanctions against Belarus, including banning its airlines from using the air space and airports of the 27-nation bloc, amid fury over the forced diversion of a passenger jet to arrest an opposition journalist.
In what EU leaders called a brazen “hijacking” of the Ryanair plane flying from Greece to Lithuania on Sunday, they also demanded the immediate release of the journalist, Roman Protasevich, a key critic of authoritarian Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko.
A brief video clip of Mr Protasevich, who ran a popular messaging app that played a key role in helping organise massive protests against Mr Lukashenko, was shown on Belarusian state television on Monday night, a day after he was removed from the Ryanair flight.
Sitting at a table with his hands folded in front of him and speaking rapidly, he said he was in satisfactory health and said his treatment in custody was “maximally correct and according to law”. He added that he was giving evidence to investigators about organising mass disturbances.
In unusually swift action in Brussels, the EU leaders also urged all EU-based carriers to avoid flying over Belarus, decided to impose sanctions on officials linked to Sunday’s flight diversion, and urged the International Civil Aviation Organisation to start an investigation into what they see as an unprecedented move and what some said amounted to state terrorism or piracy.
The leaders called on their council “to adopt the necessary measures to ban overflight of EU air space by Belarusian airlines and prevent access to EU airports of flights operated by such airlines”. As well as Mr Protasevich, they also urged authorities in Minsk to release his Russian girlfriend, Sofia Sapega, who was taken off the plane with him.
The text was endorsed quickly by leaders determined to demonstrate a “strong reaction” to the incident because of the “serious endangering of aviation safety and passengers on board by Belarussian authorities”, according to an EU official.
Ryanair said Belarusian flight controllers told the crew there was a bomb threat against the plane as it was crossing Belarus air space on Sunday and ordered it to land.
A Belarusian MiG-29 fighter jet was scrambled to escort the plane in a brazen show of force by Mr Lukashenko, who has ruled the country with an iron fist for over a quarter of a century.
Belarus authorities then arrested the 26-year-old activist, journalist and prominent Lukashenko critic. Mr Protasevich and his Russian girlfriend were taken off the plane shortly after it landed, and authorities have not said where they’re being held.
Ryanair Flight FR4978, which took off from Athens, Greece, was eventually allowed to continue on to Vilnius, Lithuania.
EU leaders were particularly forceful in their condemnation of the arrest and the move against the plane, which was flying between two of the bloc’s member nations and was being operated by an airline based in Ireland, also a member.
The bloc summoned Belarus’s ambassador “to condemn the inadmissible step of the Belarusian authorities” and said the arrest was yet again “another blatant attempt to silence all opposition voices in the country”.
Czech prime minister Andrej Babis said “the scandalous incident in Belarus shows signs of state terrorism and it’s unbelievable”, while European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen said it amounted to a “hijacking”.
“This is an attack on democracy,” Mrs von der Leyen said. “This is an attack on freedom of expression. And this is an attack on European sovereignty. And this outrageous behaviour needs a strong answer.”
Mrs Von der Leyen added that a 3 billion euro (£2.59 billion) EU investment and economic package for Belarus would remain on hold until Belarus “turns democratic”.
US president Joe Biden said late on Monday that he had asked his team to develop appropriate options to hold accountable those responsible, in close coordination with the EU, other allies and partners, and international organisations.
“This outrageous incident and the video Mr Pratasevich appears to have made under duress are shameful assaults on both political dissent and the freedom of the press,” Mr Biden said in a statement.
“The United States joins countries around the world in calling for his release, as well as for the release of the hundreds of political prisoners who are being unjustly detained by the Lukashenka regime.”
Before the EU acted, Latvia’s airBaltic said it would avoid Belarusian air space, and Lithuania’s government said it would instruct all flights to and from the Baltic country to avoid Belarus.
Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy ordered officials to cut the air link with Belarus and ban Ukrainian flights via the neighbour’s air space.
The US and the EU have imposed sanctions on senior Belarusian officials amid months of protests, triggered by Mr Lukashenko’s re-election to a sixth term in an August 2020 vote that the opposition rejected as rigged. More than 34,000 people have been arrested in Belarus since then, and thousands beaten.
The Belarusian Foreign Ministry bristled at what it described as “belligerent” EU statements, insisting Minsk acted “in full conformity with international rules”.
Mr Lukashenko’s press service said he had ordered a fighter jet to accompany the plane after being told of the bomb threat. Deputy air force commander Andrei Gurtsevich told state TV that the Ryanair crew decided to land in Minsk, adding that the fighter jet was sent “to ensure a safe landing”.
But Ryanair said in a statement that Belarusian air traffic control instructed the plane to divert to the capital. The plane was searched and no bomb was found.
Ryanair chief executive Michael O’Leary described the move as “a case of state-sponsored hijacking… state-sponsored piracy”.
In an apparent reference to the Belarusian security agency that still goes under its Soviet-era name KGB, Mr O’Leary he told Irish radio station Newstalk that he believes “some KGB agents offloaded from the aircraft” in Minsk.
Of the 126 people aboard the flight initially, only 121 made it to Vilnius, according to Rolandas Kiskis, chief of criminal police bureau in the Lithuanian capital where an investigation has begun.
Mr Protasevich was a co-founder of the Telegram messaging app’s Nexta channel, which played a prominent role in helping organise the anti-Lukashenko protests.