Belarus’ forced diversion of a plane and arrest of a journalist who was on board has widened a rift between Western powers and Minsk, prompting calls for further sanctions and an international probe over the incident.
Minsk forced the Ryanair flight from Athens, Greece, to Vilnius, Lithuania, to land in the Belarusian capital on Sunday after it scrambled a fighter jet, allegedly in response to a bomb threat.
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On its landing, Belarusian authorities took Roman Protasevich, a 26-year-old journalist who has been critical of the government, into custody. His whereabouts remain unknown.
Protasevich is wanted in Belarus on “extremism” charges. He is accused of organising mass riots against the country’s longtime President Alexander Lukashenko, as well as inciting social hatred – allegations he denies.
Sunday’s incident led to international outrage.
Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda accused Minsk of undertaking a “state-sponsored terror act” and called for “serious sanctions” against Lukashenko’s government, while the EU’s executive arm labelled the move a “hijacking”.
Fear over Protasevich’s fate grow
But Russia, an ally of Lukashenko, accused Western powers of hypocrisy over their remarks.
“It is shocking that the West calls the incident in Belarusian airspace ‘shocking’,” Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova wrote on Facebook.
“Either (they) should be shocked by … the forced (landing) in Austria of the Bolivian president’s plane at the request of the United States … Or (they) should not be shocked by similar behaviour by others.”
Zakharova was citing a July 2013 incident which saw then-Bolivian President Evo Morales grounded in Vienna for several hours while his plane was stopped and searched for the whistleblower Edward Snowden.
Meanwhile, Belarus’ political opposition voiced growing concern for Protasevich.
Opposition leader in exile Svetlana Tikhanovskaya told UK broadcaster Sky News on Monday that she was “afraid not only for his freedom, but for his life”.
“It is absolutely obvious that this is an operation of secret services to capture the plane in order to detain activist and blogger Roman Protasevich,” Tikhanovskaya, who fled Belarus for neighbouring Lithuania last year amid a government crackdown on the anti-Lukashenko protests, posted on messaging app Telegram.
EU readying fresh sanctions
The plane diversion is expected to top the agenda at a two-day summit of EU leaders, who were united in their condemnation of Lukashenko, that begins Monday.
EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell condemned the “inadmissible step” as “yet another blatant attempt by the Belarusian authorities to silence all opposition voices”.
The head of the EU commission said potential new sanctions may target individuals involved in the forced landing of the plane, businesses and economic entities financing the country’s leadership and the Belarussian aviation sector.
Speaking as EU leaders arrived in Brussels, Ursula von der Leyen said Lukashenko “and his regime have to understand that this will have severe consequences.
“So tonight we will discuss options, different options of sanctions.”
The bloc on Monday summoned the Belarusian ambassador to reprimand Minsk over the incident.
“Ambassador (Aleksandr) Mikhnevich was informed of the firm condemnation by the EU institutions and EU Member States of the coercive act by which the Belarusian authorities have jeopardised the safety of passengers and crew,” the European Commission said in a statement.
Belgium’s foreign ministry said it had also summoned Mikhnevich – who serves as envoy to both the EU and Belgium – over the “unjustified and unacceptable acts”.
The United States and former EU member the United Kingdom called for the immediate release of Protasevich and demanded the council of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) investigated the incident.
The French presidency said a request had been sent to the ICAO to suspend international flights over Belarusian air space.
Airlines take action
Belarus lies on the flight path of some important routes in Europe as well as between Europe and Asia and being forced to fly around the country would slow airlines’ operations and increase their expenses.
But several companies indicated they would no longer use the country’s airspace following the forced landing of the Ryanair plane.
Latvian airline airBaltic became the first to do so, with Cyprus-registered Avia Solutions later announcing its Lithuania-based airlines would do the same.
Lithuania’s transport minister, Marius Skuodis, said Poland’s LOT and Hungarian airline Wizzair would follow suit and announced that all flights to and from Lithuanian airports must from midnight GMT avoid Belarusian air space.
The moves came after Ryanair Chief Executive Michael O’Leary brandished Sunday’s incident as “state-sponsored piracy”.
“It appears the intent of the authorities was to remove a journalist and his travelling companion,” he told Irish radio station Newstalk on Sunday.
O’Leary also said he believed security agents had been on the flight and had disembarked in Minsk.
The Belarusian foreign ministry said on Monday that Minsk would be ready to let experts visit if needed for an investigation into Sunday’s incident, Russia’s RIA news agency reported.
However, it insisted authorities acted legally when they diverted the plane and accused Western nations of making unfounded allegations against Minsk for political reasons.
“There is no doubt that the actions of our competent authorities … fully met established international rules,” Belarusian foreign ministry spokesman Anatoly Glaz said in a statement.
“Unfounded accusations are being made.”
The development comes amid tensions in Belarus, which saw unprecedented mass anti-government protests after a disputed election in August last year that handed Lukashenko a sixth presidential term.
Police launched an immediate crackdown on the demonstrations, reportedly detaining tens of thousands of people and beating many of those who had taken to the streets.
The EU and the US have previously sanctioned Lukashenko and dozens of officials and businessmen tied to his government over its actions.
Although the anti-Lukashenko protests died down during the winter, Minsk has continued to take action against the country’s opposition and independent media.
Last week, 11 staff members of the TUT.by news website, an independent outlet, were detained by police.
The website is currently blocked in Belarus.