A defiant Belarus on Monday defended its forced diversion of a European plane carrying an opposition activist after the unprecedented move provoked a global outcry and calls for a tough response.
The Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius carrying dissident journalist Roman Protasevich was diverted while in Belarusian airspace on Sunday over a supposed bomb threat.
Accompanied by a Belarusian fighter jet, it landed in the capital Minsk where Protasevich, a 26-year-old who had been living between EU states Poland and Lithuania, was arrested along with his girlfriend.
Accusing strongman Alexander Lukashenko’s regime of essentially hijacking a European plane, Western leaders insisted the move would not go unanswered.
Many in Europe called for tough new sanctions to be agreed at a pre-planned summit on Monday, while Washington denounced the “shocking act” and demanded Protasevich’s release.
In its first official reaction to the incident, Belarus’s foreign ministry insisted the country had acted legally and accused the West of trying to play politics.
“There is no doubt that the actions of our competent authorities… fully met established international rules,” ministry spokesman Anatoly Glaz said in a statement, accusing the West of “politicising” the situation.
“Unfounded accusations are being made,” he said.
‘Act of state terrorism’
The EU and other Western countries have already imposed a wide range of sanctions on Lukashenko’s government over a brutal crackdown on opposition demonstrations that followed his disputed re-election to a sixth term last August.
Together with co-founder Stepan Putilo, Protasevich until recently ran the Nexta telegram channel that galvanised and directed the protests, which were the biggest challenge to Lukashenko’s rule since he took power in the ex-Soviet country in 1994.
The diversion of the plane was roundly condemned in Europe, with EU chief Ursula von der Leyen describing it as “outrageous and illegal”, Poland denouncing it as “an act of state terrorism” and France calling for a “strong and united response”.
NATO demanded a probe into the “serious and dangerous incident” while US Secretary of State Antony Blinken called it “a shocking act” that “endangered the lives of more than 120 passengers, including US citizens”.
Belarus’s main ally Russia showed little concern however, with foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova mocking the Western indignation.
“We are shocked that the West calls the incident in Belarusian air space ‘shocking,'” Zakharova said on Facebook, accusing Western nations of “kidnappings, forced landings and illegal arrests”.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov refused to comment on the incident, saying it was up to international aviation authorities to evaluate what had happened.
Latvia-based regional airline airBaltic said it would now be avoiding Belarusian airspace.
With close to two million subscribers on Telegram, Nexta Live and its sister channel Nexta are prominent opposition channels and helped mobilise protesters in Belarus.
Protasevich and Putilo were added to Belarus’s list of “individuals involved in terrorist activity” last year.
The two were accused of causing mass unrest, an offence punishable by up to 15 years in jail.
“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,” exiled opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya said on Telegram.
The opposition says that Tikhanovskaya, who fled to neighbouring Lithuania after last year’s presidential election, was the true winner of the vote.
‘KGB on board’
A member of the Nexta team, Tadeusz Giczan, tweeted that representatives of the Belarusian security agency had been on Protasevich’s flight.
“Then when the plane had entered Belarus airspace, the KGB officers initiated a fight with the Ryanair crew insisting there’s an IED (improvised explosive device) onboard,” he said.
Ryanair chief executive Michael O’Leary said it appeared that agents of the Belarusian KGB were on the plane and also deboarded in Minsk.
“I think it’s the first time it’s happened to a European airline,” O’Leary told Ireland’s Newstalk radio. “It was a state-sponsored hijacking, it was state-sponsored piracy.”
Passengers described seeing Protasevich looking nervous as the flight was diverted to Minsk.
“He started panicking and saying this was because of him,” Monika Simkiene, a 40-year-old Lithuanian, told AFP after the plane finally landed in Vilnius several hours later than its scheduled arrival time.
“He just turned to people and said he was facing the death penalty.”
His girlfriend Sofia Sapega — a Russian citizen and law student at the European Humanities University (EHU) in Lithuania — was arrested along with him, her university confirmed on Monday.