EU leaders are weighing a series of sanctions to punish Alexander Lukashenko’s Belarusian regime after Brussels marked the “hijacking” of a Ryanair flight from Greece to Lithuania to capture one without support.
The options explored by the 27 bloc leaders include banning Belarus’s national carrier, Belavia, from landing at EU airports; declaring the air area unsafe; and increased sanctions such as travel bans and asset freezes already imposed by dozens of Minsk officials over rights abuses, according to EU diplomats.
The forced landing in Minsk and subsequent imprisonment of Roman Protasevich, former editor of Nexta, one of the leading independent media groups in Belarus, “is another vicious attempt by the Belarusian authorities to silence all voices of opposition ”, said Josep Borrell, EU foreign policy chief.
He called for an “international scrutiny” to ascertain any violation of international flight rules. A French official said a formal request for an investigation had been made by the UN aviation agency.
Ursula von der Leyen, the head of the European Commission, threatened the “consequences” of the “presumptuous and illegal conduct of the Belarusian regime”. “Those responsible for Ryanair hijacking must be punished, ”he tweeted. “Journalist Roman Protasevich should be released immediately.”
Ryanair called the diversion of its plane an “act of flight piracy”, with chief executive Michael O’Leary saying he was waiting for directions on whether to avoid the Belarusian space in the future.
“It appears that the intention of the authorities was to remove a journalist and his traveling companion,” he said, adding that he understood agents of the Belarusian KGB secret service to be on board, but did not is any evidence.
Belarus’s foreign ministry said such accusations were “baseless” while Russia called the EU’s response “shocking.
Relations between Brussels and Minsk deteriorated after last year’s presidential polls and the aftermath. In December, European leaders imposed new sanctions on Lukashenko and other members of the regime.
Belarus is also part of the “Eastern Partnership” with six EU states close to Russia’s border, enjoying privileges such as a visa expedition agreement launched last year. The European bloc had previously hoped to get Minsk out of the Kremlin’s orbit, but events on Sunday showed how the goal looked hopeless.
Franak Viacorka, an aide to exiled Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, called for a no-fly zone to be imposed on Belarus. He also called for more sanctions on sectors with oil and potash revenues in Belarus, providing significant revenue for the Lukashenko regime that has ruled Belarus with an iron fist for 27 years.
Belarusian media said Lukashenko had personally given the order to divert Ryanair flight FR4978, which was carrying 171 passengers from Athens to Vilnius on Sunday before a sudden rerout of the Belarusian capital. Minsk before it was due to leave the space of Belarus.
Belarusian officials said a MiG-29 fighter jet was speeding to take the airliner to Minsk following a bomb scare, which they later accepted as “false”.
In a statement posted on the Belarusian foreign ministry’s website on Monday, spokesman Anatoly Glaz said its flight authorities had acted “completely in accordance with established international rules”. Glaz accused EU countries of “rushing to make outright war-like statements” and “deliberately politicizing the situation with baseless accusations and labels”.
Meanwhile, Russia’s foreign ministry, like Belarus’s attack on western countries ’responses to the incident, has accused them of hypocrisy.
“Surprisingly, the west has called the Belarusian space incident ‘shocking’.” Maria Zakharova, the ministry’s spokeswoman, wrote a post on her Facebook page, citing other examples of planes being flown by foreign countries to capture wanted people.
Protasevich’s girlfriend Sofia Sapega, who was with him on the trip, was also detained on arrival on the plane, according to the European Humanities University in Vilnius, where he was studying.
Consistent with messages sent by Protasevich to colleagues on Sunday, he said he was followed by a man he suspected was a Belarusian KGB agent while in the exit lounge in Athens.
Passengers who boarded the flight told AFP that Protasevich had already started firing through his bags and handed some items to his lover once it became clear that the flight was bound for Belarus.
“[He was] not shouting, but he was clearly scared, ”Edvinas Dimsa, a passenger told AFP. “It’s like if the window was open, he would have jumped out of here.”
Further reporting by Philip Georgiadis in London and Richard Milne in Oslo