EU Sanctions Belarus Over Plane Diversion, Blogger Arrest

Pablo Tucker
May 25, 2021

European Union leaders have cut air links with Belarus, as the regime of President Alexander Lukashenko paraded a dissident journalist arrested after his flight was forced to land in Minsk.

Belarus's strongman leader Alexander Lukashenko sparked global outrage by dispatching a fighter jet Sunday to intercept the Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius carrying Protasevich, 26, and his girlfriend Sofia Sapega.

Once on the ground, Belarus authorities arrested Protasevich and his girlfriend, Sofia Sapega. Ryanair chief Michael O'Leary said he believed Belarusian security agents had been on the flight and had also disembarked in Minsk.

Underlining the EU's desire to show support for opponents of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, French President Emmanuel Macron said he would like the Belarusian opposition to be invited to meet Group of Seven leaders at a summit in Britain next month.

Protasevich appeared in a video late on Monday (local time) where he says he is in good health and acknowledges having played a role in organising mass disturbances in Minsk past year.

"When it was announced they were going to land in Minsk, Roman stood up, opened the luggage compartment, took luggage and was trying to split things", said a Lithuanian passenger, who gave his name only as Mantas.

Belarus journalist Raman Pratasevich stands in an airport bus in the worldwide airport outside Minsk, Belarus, May 23, 2021, in this photo released by telegram Chanel State media said the intervention was ordered personally by Lukashenko. They reiterated this claim in Tuesday's statement.

They demanded Pratasevich's release and urged European carriers to avoid Belarus' airspace. The flight had originated from Greece, but was forced to land in Minsk.

The Minsk government has accused Pratasevich of terrorism and provoking riots after the Nexta channels became one of the main conduits for organizing last year's anti-Lukashenko protests over election fraud.

During Lukashenko's crackdown on dissent, almost all opposition figures have been driven into exile or jailed, many on charges of organising demonstrations, which the government describes as terrorism.

Protsevich's father Dmitry on Monday told Radio Free Europe he feared his son might be tortured in Belarus. He freaked out when the pilot said the plane is diverted to Minsk.

NEXTA, a news service where Protasevich worked before setting up his own widely followed blog, ran an interview with his mother, who said that as soon as she heard reports of a bomb scare on a flight, she knew it was a plot to capture him.

"I want to say just that my son - he's a hero".

In a call with US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, Tikhanovskaya asked the United States to "isolate the regime and pressure it through sanctions", she said on Twitter.

The rights group Amnesty International said the international community needs to make sure this method of silencing "dissenting voices is never repeated".

Air France, Finnair and Singapore Airlines on Tuesday became the latest carriers to suspend flights over Belarus, following Scandinavian airline SAS, Germany's Lufthansa and Latvia-based regional airline Air Baltic.

"There must be an immediate, international, transparent, and credible investigation of this incident", Buttigieg added.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the plane's diversion was "shocking", while Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda called it a "state-sponsored terror act".

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