European Union leaders discuss Belarus plane ‘hijack’

Henrietta Brewer
May 25, 2021

Belarusian authorities scrambled a fighter jet and flagged what turned out to be a false bomb alert to force a Ryanair plane to land on Sunday and then detained an opposition-minded journalist who was on board, drawing condemnation from Europe and the United States.

While the plane was in Belarusian airspace, air traffic controllers told the pilot there was a bomb threat against the plane.

The flight later took off again and landed in the Lithuanian capital at 9.25 p.m. Sunday night after a seven-hour detour.

Raab said Britain was working with allies on a coordinated response including further sanctions on Belarus which has been led by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko since 1994.

"We can not allow this incident to pass on the basis of warnings or strong press releases", Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney told state broadcaster RTE. "So I think he was forced". European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said, "Any violation of worldwide air transport rules must bear consequences".

"The outrageous and illegal behaviour of the regime in Belarus will have consequences", EU Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen tweeted, calling for Protasevich's immediate release and adding that those responsible "must be sanctioned". When Belarusian authorities moved to block Internet and mobile service during the rallies, Telegram, a popular social media and messaging app, continued to work. He pointed to a July 2013 incident in which a head-of-state aircraft carrying former Bolivian President Evo Morales diverted to Vienna, Austria, on a flight from Moscow to the Bolivian capital La Paz, apparently as justification for Belarus's actions.

To ensure the safety of air passengers, I have worked with the Transport Secretary to issue notice to all United Kingdom airlines to cease overflights of Belarusian airspace, and to suspend the operating permit on the Belarusian airline Belavia with immediate effect. "Allies are consulting on the forcible landing of the Ryanair plane by Belarus and ambassadors will discuss it tomorrow", a North Atlantic Treaty Organisation official told AFP Monday.

Lithuania and Latvia both share a border with Belarus.

"I saw this Belarusian guy with girlfriend sitting right behind us".

Speaking on Irish radio on Monday, Ryanair Chief Executive Michael O'Leary described the incident as a "case of state-sponsored hijacking, (.) state-sponsored piracy".

The Belarusian foreign ministry on Monday bristled at what it described as "belligerent" European Union statements, insisting that the country's authorities acted "in full conformity with global rules".

Russia, Lukashenko's close ally, also criticised the West's "shocking" reactions to the incident.

"I think what happened was an act of revenge, to enlighten others: Look what we can do", he said.

"It looks like the kind of story that they nearly don't want you to believe; they just want to show how brazen they are", Cragg added.

Appearing on several channels of the Telegram messaging app on Monday, Protasevich, 26, acknowledged playing a role in organising mass disturbances in Minsk a year ago. The Belarus government called the channel "extremist" and charged Pratasevich with inciting mass riots.

The U.S. and the European Union had already imposed sanctions against Belarusian officials amid months of protests, which were triggered by Lukashenko's reelection to a sixth term in an August 2020 vote that the opposition rejected as rigged. More than 34,000 people have been arrested since August, including opposition activists, and thousands have been beaten and abused by police to try to stem the protests.

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