Pressure was building Monday for a tough international response to Belarus’s forced landing of a European airliner so it could arrest an opposition activist.
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 on the orders of strongman Alexander Lukashenko, the plane landed in the capital Minsk where Protasevich, a 26-year-old who had been living in Lithuania, was arrested along with his Russian girlfriend.
The unprecedented move sparked an international outcry, with Western leaders accusing Belarusian authorities of essentially hijacking a European plane.
As EU leaders prepared to meet for a summit later on Monday, Brussels said it had summoned the Belarusian ambassador to condemn the “coercive act”.
Belarus’s exiled opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya said Protasevich’s life was in danger, calling for an international investigation and concrete steps against the regime.
“The time for statements has passed — obviously Belarusians expect decisive actions and assistance from the international community,” she said in a video statement.
The EU and other Western countries have 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.
– ‘Act of state terrorism’ –
Belarus on Monday insisted the country had acted legally and accused the West of playing politics.
“There is no doubt that the actions of our competent authorities… fully met established international rules,” foreign ministry spokesman Anatoly Glaz said in a statement, accusing the West of “politicising” the situation.
“Unfounded accusations are being made,” he said.
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” and alliance envoys were to discuss it on Tuesday.
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.
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Minsk was taking an “absolutely reasonable approach” while ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova mocked 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”.
The International Civil Aviation Organization — the UN’s civil aviation agency — said the forced landing could be in contravention of the Chicago Convention, which protects nations’ airspace sovereignty.
– Calls to ban overflights –
Some in Europe were already taking steps, with Lithuania saying it would not authorise any flights that cross Belarusian territory and Latvia-based regional airline airBaltic saying it would now be avoiding the country’s airspace.
EU leaders will debate tougher sanctions against Belarus on Monday, with Lithuania and France calling for Belarusian airspace to be blocked and aircraft from the country stopped from landing in EU airports.
The bloc was already working on a new round of measures that was expected to see dozens more officials added to an asset freeze and visa ban blacklist in the coming weeks.
Those sanctions could now be expedited and Brussels is expected to propose more measures in response to the forced landing, an EU source said.
“We are assessing the situation and do not rule out any action,” the source said.
– 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.
– ‘KGB on board’ –
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.
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.”