Biden Orders Options to Hold Belarus Accountable for Diverting Plane With Journalist

May 24, 2021 Updated: May 25, 2021

President Joe Biden on Monday ordered his administration to develop options to punish the strongman regime in Belarus for diverting a Ryanair flight in order to detain an activist journalist.

“I welcome the news that the European Union has called for targeted economic sanctions and other measures, and have asked my team to develop appropriate options to hold accountable those responsible, in close coordination with the European Union, other allies and partners, and international organizations,” Biden said in a statement.

Ryanair said Belarusian flight controllers told the crew there was a bomb threat against the plane as it was crossing through Belarus airspace Sunday and ordered it to land. A Belarusian MiG-29 fighter jet was scrambled to escort the plane in a brazen show of force by Lukashenko, who has ruled the country with an iron fist for over a quarter-century.

Belarus authorities then arrested the 26-year-old activist, journalist, and prominent Lukashenko critic. Pratasevich and his Russian girlfriend were taken off the plane shortly after it landed, and authorities haven’t said where they’re being held. Ryanair Flight FR4978, which began in Athens, Greece, was eventually allowed to continue on to Vilnius, Lithuania.

Biden condemned the move and joined international calls for an investigation and for the release of Pratasevich.

“Belarus’s forced diversion of a commercial Ryanair flight, traveling between two member states of the European Union, and subsequent removal and arrest of Raman Pratasevich, a Belarusian journalist traveling abroad, are a direct affront to international norms,” the president said.

“The United States condemns in the strongest possible terms both the diversion of the plane and the subsequent removal and arrest of Mr. Pratasevich. This outrageous incident and the video Mr. Pratasevich appears to have made under duress are shameful assaults on both political dissent and the freedom of the press.”

The European Union agreed Monday to impose sanctions on Belarus, including banning its airlines from using the airspace and airports of the 27-nation bloc, amid fury over the forced diversion of a passenger jet to arrest an opposition journalist.

“We won’t tolerate that one can try to play Russian roulette with the lives of innocent civilians,” said EU Council chief Charles Michel, who presided over the EU meeting.

National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan on Monday “strongly condemned” the detention of Pratasevich during a call with Belarus opposition leader Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, according to a call summary released by the White House. The statement concluded with a warning that the U.S. will work with allies to hold Belarus accountable.

“Mr. Sullivan cited the U.S. demand for the immediate release of Mr. Pratasevich and all political prisoners in Belarus, as well as the need for free and fair elections under OSCE observation to resolve the current crisis,” the statement said. “Finally, Mr. Sullivan made clear that the United States, in coordination with the EU and other allies and partners, will hold the Lukashenka regime to account.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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