U.S. and European officials said they are coordinating sanctions against Belarus after its authorities arrested a prominent opposition journalist from a plane diverted to the country with a bomb alert on Monday.
The flight, from Irish budget airline Ryanair, was on its way to Vilnius, Lithuania, from Athens, Greece, when Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko ordered a fighter jet to escort it to land in Minsk.
Raman Pratasevich, the co-founder of the Telegram messaging app’s Nexta channel, was arrested after the plane landed and is facing charges that could carry a prison sentence of up to 15 years.
Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary described the incident as a first for a European airline and as a “state-sponsored hijack.”
Speaking to Irish radio station Newstalk, O’Leary said it was clear that “the intent of the Russian [sic] authorities was to remove a journalist and his travelling companion,” and that he believes some “KGB agents” were also offloaded from the aircraft, echoing a passenger who told Reuters that there appeared to be more empty seats on the final Minsk-Vilnius journey than when it took off from Athens.
O’Leary said Ryanair will have a detailed debrief on Tuesday with NATO and EU authorities and has asked them if Ryanair should fly around Belarus.
A spokeswoman for the Lithuanian prime minister said later on Monday that the latest information available from Ryanair suggested 126 passengers had departed the Greek capital and 121 were present on arrival in Lithuania.
Franak Viačorka, senior adviser to Belarus opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, called for sanctions and a no-fly zone over Belarus.
Viačorka wrote on Twitter: “We are dealing with the terrorist regime. What to do now: — No-fly zone over Belarus — Broadest sanctions on perpetrators — Cut Lukashenka from funding: sanction cronies, oil&potash sectors, arms trade — Discuss Belarus at UN SC and G7 — Increase support for media & civil society.”
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab have both condemned the act by Belarus and demanded the immediate release of Pratasevich.
“This shocking act perpetrated by the Lukashenka regime endangered the lives of more than 120 passengers, including U.S. citizens,” Blinken said in a statement.
“Initial reports suggesting the involvement of the Belarusian security services and the use of Belarusian military aircraft to escort the plane are deeply concerning and require [a] full investigation,” he said.
Blinken said the United States is coordinating its response with partners including Lithuanian and Greek officials and the European Union.
Raab said Lukashenko’s action will have “serious implications.”
“The UK is alarmed by reports of the arrest of @nexta_tv journalist Roman Protasevich & circumstances that led to his flight being forced to land in Minsk. We are coordinating with our allies. This outlandish action by Lukashenko will have serious implications,” Raab wrote in a tweet.
In a separate statement on Monday, Raab also called for the immediate release of other political prisoners held in Belarus, and said that “Lukashenko must be held to account.”
“The UK is working with our allies on a coordinated response, including further sanctions,” he said.
“The UK also calls for the ICAO [International Civil Aviation Organisation] Council to meet urgently to consider the regime’s flouting of the international rules safeguarding civil aviation.”
EU leaders have also sent signals of “strong” responses.
EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said the incident was “yet another blatant attempt by the Belarusian authorities to silence all opposition voices.”
EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen earlier said it amounted to a “hijacking,” while Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda called it a “state-sponsored terror act.”
Irish Prime Minister Micheal Martin told national broadcaster RTE the diversion “certainly was a state-sponsored coercive act.”
“It reflects growing authoritarianism across the world,” Martin said. “These authoritarian figures taking premeditated decisions of this kind. … We have to respond very strong [sic] to it.”
Lithuanian Prime Minister Ingrida Simonyte said Belarus had committed an “act of state terrorism directed against the security of citizens of the European Union and other countries, civil society of Belarus seeking asylum from the regime’s persecution, as well as international civil aviation.”
Simonyte said she would work with Lithuania’s international partners to close the airspace of Belarus to international flights.
As Western leaders work on a coordinated response, politicians have called for Belarus to be suspended from international organisations.
🇧🇾 🇪🇺 International Civil Aviation Organisation must report swiftly & EU leaders must take appropriate action. All must stand firmly against State run terror. pic.twitter.com/gnmtAEcOGt
— Charlie Flanagan (@CharlieFlanagan) May 24, 2021
In a joint letter on Sunday, chairs of parliamentary foreign affairs committees from the UK, Germany, Ireland, the United States, and Belarus’s neighboring countries the Czech Republic, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, and Estonia called for Belarus to be suspended from ICAO until the organization conducts an inquiry and a ban on all flights over Belarus including flights to and from the country.
The foreign committee chairs also called on NATO and EU countries to sanction the Belarus regime and suspend its ability to use Interpol and other international organizations.
Meanwhile, Latvian airline airBaltic has said it decided to avoid Belarus airspace, and an online flight tracker showed that an aircraft of Hungarian airline Wizz Air has also avoided Belarus airspace.
The United States and the EU already have imposed sanctions on top Belarusian officials amid months of protests, which were triggered by Lukashenko’s reelection to a sixth presidential term in an August vote that the opposition rejected as rigged. More than 34,000 people have been arrested in Belarus since then, and thousands were brutally beaten.
The Belarusian Foreign Ministry on Monday bristled at what it described as “belligerent” EU statements, insisting that the country’s authorities acted “in full conformity with international rules.”
Reuters, PA, and The Associated Press contributed to this report.