London, United Kingdom: Foreign ministers of the Group of Seven wealthy nations on Thursday called for the “immediate and unconditional release” of Roman Protasevich, a Belarusian journalist arrested by the regime in Minsk after the plane he was on was diverted.
“We demand the immediate and unconditional release” of Protasevich, “as well as all other journalists and political prisoners held in Belarus,” the ministers said in a joint statement published by the British government.
The ministers of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Britain, and the United States, along with the European Union “condemn in the strongest terms the unprecedented action by the Belarusian authorities,” the statement added.
International disapproval of Belarus and its president, Alexander Lukashenko, has increased since the regime diverted a Ryanair jet on Sunday to arrest Protasevich, an opposition journalist, and his companion, Sofia Sopega, who were both onboard.
The G7 ministers accused Lukashenko of jeopardizing the safety of the passengers and crew on the flight.
“We call on the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) to urgently address this challenge to its rules and standards,” said the statement.
“This action also represents a serious attack on media freedom,” it added.
“We will enhance our efforts, including through further sanctions as appropriate, to promote accountability for the actions of the Belarusian authorities.”
Dominic Raab, foreign minister for Britain, which currently holds the G7 presidency, wrote on Twitter that “we will use all the tools at our disposal to hold the Lukashenko regime to account”.
Plane interception over Belarus: what we know
Belarus diverted a European plane to arrest an exiled dissident on Sunday, sparking global fury and leading to EU leaders agreeing to cut air links with the eastern European country.
Here is what we know so far:
Flight FR4978 of the Irish low-cost Ryanair took off from Athens on Sunday at 0728 GMT for Vilnius, the capital of EU member Lithuania.
At around 0930 GMT, the Boeing 737-800 entered Belarusian airspace and was contacted by Belarusian air traffic control.
“We have information from special services that you have (a) bomb on board and it can be activated over Vilnius,” the air traffic control told the pilot, according to a transcript released by Belarusian authorities.
The controller added that the bomb threat was received “by email”.
Belarusian officials later claimed that the message came from the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas with an ultimatum to end EU support for Israel. To complicate matters further, Lukashenko claimed Wednesday that the bomb threat had been sent from Switzerland.
Landing in Minsk
According to the transcript, the control tower pushed for a landing in the Belarusian capital Minsk.
When the pilot appeared reluctant and asked about the origin of the suggestion, ground control said it was “our” recommendation.
A MiG-29 fighter jet had been dispatched by Lukashenko to accompany the flight.
The chief of the Belarus air force, Igor Golub, said Monday that the Ryanair pilot independently, “without outside interference”, made the decision to land in Minsk.
At 1015 GMT, the flight landed at Minsk National Airport.
The aircraft, its passengers, and their luggage were searched by security staff and sniffer dogs. No explosive devices were found and the airport cleared the plane for departure.
At 1748 GMT, the flight took off from Minsk and arrived in Vilnius around 40 minutes later.
On arrival, five passengers were missing, including Roman Protasevich, a Belarusian dissident and former editor of the Nexta opposition channel on messaging app Telegram, and his girlfriend Sofia Sapega, who is a Russian national.
#UPDATE Exiled Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya on Tuesday called on the US and G7 to ramp up pressure on #Belarus‘s government after the diversion of a Ryanair flight and arrest of a dissident on board https://t.co/TilWm8Tm9n pic.twitter.com/3GV6f2zSpH
— AFP News Agency (@AFP) May 25, 2021
Protasevich and Sapega were arrested on arrival in Minsk.
Both the opposition and Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary suggested that members of the Belarusian security agency KGB were onboard the flight.
Lukashenko dismissed that claim on Wednesday.
Protasevich also told his allies that he was followed before boarding the flight in Greece.
According to passengers from the flight interviewed by AFP, the 26-year-old journalist knew he was in danger.
“It looked like if the window had been open, he would have jumped out of it,” said Edvinas Dimsa, 37.
Belarusian authorities said they had acted “lawfully” in order to “protect people” in the face of a security threat.
State television said that the arrest of the wanted activist, who played a key role in mobilizing historic protests against Lukashenko last year, was a coincidence.
The television report said that Protasevich was not immediately arrested as the police did not realize who he was and only took an interest in him after his photo and information that he was on the flight appeared on social media.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel dismissed Belarus’s version of events as “completely implausible”.
The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), an agency of the United Nations, called for an “urgent” meeting on Thursday morning, saying the forced landing could be in violation of the Chicago Convention which regulates air travel.
Western countries and international organizations have called for an independent international investigation.
Belarus said it was ready to cooperate, adding that authorities invited representatives of international agencies, including the ICAO, to look into the incident.
The European Union agreed on Monday to ban Belarusian airlines from the bloc and called on EU-based carriers not to fly over the country’s airspace.