Minsk, Belarus: Belarus forced a European airplane to land so it could arrest an opposition activist, prompting calls for a stern international response on Monday.
On Sunday, a Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius carrying dissident journalist Roman Protasevich was diverted while flying over Belarusian territory due to a bomb threat.
On the instructions of strongman Alexander Lukashenko, a Belarusian fighter jet accompanied the plane to Minsk, where Protasevich, a 26-year-old who had been living in Lithuania, was arrested together with his Russian fiancée.
The unusual action aroused outrage around the world, with Western officials accusing Belarusian officials of effectively seizing a European jet.
Brussels said it had summoned Belarus’ ambassador to condemn the “coercive act” as EU leaders prepared to meet for a summit later Monday.
Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, a Belarusian exiled opposition leader, said Protasevich’s life was under danger and demanded an international investigation and real action against the regime.
“The time for statements has passed — obviously Belarusians expect decisive actions and assistance from the international community,” she said in a video statement.
Following his disputed re-election to a sixth term last August, the EU, and other Western countries levied a slew of sanctions on Lukashenko’s regime for a harsh crackdown on opposition demonstrators.
Protasevich controlled the Nexta telegram channel with co-founder Stepan Putilo until recently, which galvanized and led the protests, which were the strongest challenge to Lukashenko’s reign since he gained power in the ex-Soviet republic in 1994.
Belarus claimed on Monday that it had acted legitimately and accused the West of politicizing the situation.
“There is no doubt that the actions of our competent authorities… fully met established international rules,” foreign ministry spokesman Anatoly Glaz said in a statement, accusing the West of “politicizing” the situation.
“Unfounded accusations are being made,” he said.
#UPDATE Authorities in Belarus insist they acted legally when they diverted a passenger plane with a dissident onboard, accusing the West of making unfounded claims for political reasons
📸 A Belarusian dog handler checks luggage from a Ryanair plane grounded in Minsk pic.twitter.com/IgwjWwKw6Y
— AFP News Agency (@AFP) May 24, 2021
The plane’s detour was roundly condemned in Europe, with EU Commissioner Ursula von der Leyen calling it “outrageous and illegal,” Poland calling it “state terrorism,” and France calling for a “strong and united response.”
NATO has demanded an investigation into the “severe and dangerous event,” which will be discussed by alliance envoys on Tuesday.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken called it “a shocking act” that “endangered the lives of more than 120 passengers, including US citizens.”
However, Belarus’s primary ally, Russia, was unconcerned.
Minsk is taking a “perfectly sensible attitude,” said Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, while ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova mocked Western outrage.
“We are shocked that the West calls the incident in Belarusian air space ‘shocking,'” Zakharova said on Facebook, accusing Western nations of “kidnappings, forced landings, and illegal arrests”.
The forced landing could be in violation of the Chicago Convention, which safeguards states’ airspace sovereignty, according to the International Civil Aviation Organization, the UN’s civil aviation body.
Proposals to prohibit overflights
Lithuania said it would not allow any flights to pass Belarusian territory, and Latvia-based regional airline airBaltic said it would henceforth avoid the country’s airspace.
On Monday, EU leaders will discuss tougher penalties against Belarus, with Lithuania and France demanding for Belarusian airspace to be banned and Belarusian planes to be barred from landing in EU airports.
The EU was already working on a new batch of sanctions, with dozens of more officials anticipated to be added to an asset freeze and travel restriction blacklist in the coming weeks.
According to an EU source, those sanctions might now be accelerated, and Brussels is set to propose additional penalties in response to the forced landing.
“We are assessing the situation and do not rule out any action,” the source said.
– With nearly two million Telegram users, Nexta Live and its sister channel Nexta are popular opposition channels that have assisted in mobilizing demonstrators in Belarus.
“The KGB is on board”
Last year, Belarus added Protasevich and Putilo to its list of “individuals active in terrorist activities.”
The two were charged with inciting riots, a crime punishable by up to 15 years in prison.
Representatives of the Belarusian security service were on Protasevich’s flight, according to a member of the Nexta team, Tadeusz Giczan.
“Then when the plane had entered Belarus airspace, the KGB officers initiated a fight with the Ryanair crew insisting there’s an IED (improvised explosive device) on board,” he said.
According to Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary, it looked that Belarusian KGB spies were on board and deboarded in Minsk.
“I think it’s the first time it’s happened to a European airline,” O’Leary told Ireland’s Newstalk radio. “It was a state-sponsored hijacking, it was state-sponsored piracy.”