A Ryanair Boeing 737-800 aeroplane takes off from the airport in Palma de Mallorca, Spain. Picture: REUTERS/PAUL HANNA
A Ryanair Boeing 737-800 aeroplane takes off from the airport in Palma de Mallorca, Spain. Picture: REUTERS/PAUL HANNA

Vilnius/Minsk — The US and Europe reacted with outrage after Belarus ordered a Ryanair Holdings flight transiting its airspace to land and arrested a journalist on board, an unprecedented violation of European air travel protocols.

“The US strongly condemns the forced diversion of a flight between two EU member states and the subsequent removal and arrest of journalist Roman Pratasevich,” US secretary of state Antony 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 full investigation.”

The forced landing drew sharp and unified condemnation from across the EU, with France and Greece, Poland and Germany among those rushing to express their anger. Further sanctions on Minsk may result. EU leaders due to meet in Brussels for a two-day summit starting Monday will discuss the consequences of what EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen called an “unacceptable” action.

Europe’s fury was triggered after a Boeing 737-800 carrying scores of passengers from Athens to Vilnius was diverted to the Belarusian capital on Sunday under the escort of a Mig-29 fighter jet. The plane’s crew was notified by authorities in Minsk of a “potential security threat on board,” a Ryanair spokesperson said. Once in Minsk, authorities arrested a journalist who covered protests against President Alexander Lukashenko, whose election to a sixth term in 2020 was internationally disputed.

Authorities boarded the plane and arrested Pratasevich, the former editor-in-chief of one the most popular Telegram news channels in Belarus. Pratasevich was not on the plane when it was allowed to take off again for Vilnius, Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda said in a recorded statement.

“This is a serious and dangerous incident, which requires international investigation,” Nato secretary Jens Stoltenberg said on Twitter.

A spokesperson for the interior ministry in Minsk declined to comment.

Potential measures when EU leaders meet could include sanctions against individuals and entities, suspending all flights by EU airlines over Belarus, banning Minsk’s carrier Belavia from landing at airports in the bloc, and the suspension of all transit, including ground travel, between Belarus and the EU, according to an official familiar with the discussions. The steps would be on top of a sanctions package Brussels was already working on and was aiming to present in June.

A post-election crackdown by Lukashenko’s administration on the opposition already resulted in US and EU sanctions and pushed the president, in office since 1994, closer to Russia. Sunday’s events risk deepening the international isolation of a country that former US secretary state of Condoleezza Rice referred to in 2006 during a visit to Lithuania as the last dictatorship in Europe.

The latest incident has the potential to influence already strained ties between US President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin, even as the two leaders move towards a potential first summit as soon as June.

Lukashenko is slated to meet Putin this week in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, Rossiya-1 television reported Sunday. Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov did not respond to a request for comment after hours in Moscow.

US state department officials have been talking to Brussels, Vilnius and Athens all day long, according to a person familiar with the diplomacy who asked not to be named talking about internal discussions.

Lukashenko gave an unconditional order to turn the plane around, the state news service Belta said, citing the unofficial Pool Pervogo telegram channel, which is widely seen as run by people close to the presidential press service.

An adviser to Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya said Pratasevich, had been bundled off the flight in Minsk by police. “At first he panicked, then calmed down a bit, but still was trembling,” Franak Viacorka said on Twitter, citing passengers. “He said he’ll face the death penalty here. He was taken aside, his belongings dumped on the runway.”

Pratasevich and his Nexta colleague Stsiapan Putsila were accused of organising mass unrest and group actions severely violating public order, the Investigative Committee said on November 5. They were also accused of stirring “social hatred” against law enforcers via their Telegram channels.

Viacorka said that the arrest may also allow the authorities in Belarus to obtain information about Pratasevich’s collaborators, facilitating a broader repression of independent reporting.

“They have control over his phone,” he said in a separate phone interview. “They can get access to the channels he administered and to all correspondence and chats Pratasevich had.”

Nauseda called the Ryanair forced landing an unprecedented “kidnapping of a person by use of military force” and urged Nato and the EU to react to the threat posed by the Belarusian leadership to civil aviation.

Mateusz Morawiecki, the prime minister of Belarus’s neighbour Poland, urged sanctions against Lukashenko for committing an “act of state terrorism.” Greece called it a “state hijacking”.

German foreign minister Heiko Maas denounced Belarus’s actions, saying that forcing a plane to land under the pretext of a bomb threat was a “severe interference into civil aviation travel”.

“Such an act cannot remain without consequences from the side of the EU,” Maas said.

There were conflicting reports of the number of people who were on board. The foreign ministries of Greece and Lithuania said there were 171 passengers from at least 18 countries. The Belarusian state news agency Belta reported that there were 123 passengers.

Lithuanian Prime Minister Ingrida Simonyte arrived at the airport in Vilnius with a prosecutor to question the arriving passengers, and the prime minister announced an investigation.

US legislators joined with counterparts from seven other countries in calling for an inquiry by the Montreal-based International Civil Aviation Organization into a “clear violation of free transit between states and the threats to the aircraft”.

“Until ICAO has reported, we call for Belarus to be suspended from the organisation and a ban on all overflight of Belarus including flights to and from the country,” senator Robert Menendez, chair of the Senate foreign relations committee, said in a statement.

Blinken said the Biden administration supports the earliest possible meeting of the ICAO to review Sunday’s events.

Bloomberg News. For more articles like this please visit Bloomberg.com

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