EU leaders agree to pile sanctions on Belarus over jetliner ‘state piracy’

EU heads of state and government in Brussels on 24 May 2021. This was the first face-to-face EU summit since December 2020. [Council Newsroom]

Western powers prepared to pile sanctions on Belarus and cut off its aviation links on Monday (24 May), furious after it scrambled a warplane to intercept a Ryanair aircraft and arrest a dissident journalist, an act one leader denounced as ‘state piracy’.

Belarus strongman Alexander Lukashenko sparked international outrage by dispatching a fighter jet Sunday to intercept a Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius carrying wanted reporter Roman Protasevich, 26, and his girlfriend Sofia Sapega.

Belarus ‘state terrorism’ suddenly tops the agenda as EU leaders meet

Belarus forced a plane carrying an opposition activist to land in its capital, provoking a furious outcry from world leaders who described it as an “act of state terrorism” ahead of an EU summit expected to toughen sanctions on Minsk.

To add insult to injury, Belarusian state television broadcast a 30-second video of Protasevich, who had been living between Lithuania and Poland, confirming that he was in prison in Minsk and “confessing” to charges of organising mass unrest.

The footage showed Protasevich — who could face 15 years in jail — with dark markings visible on his forehead, saying he was being treated “according to the law”.

The comments were immediately dismissed by his allies as having been made under duress.

European Union leaders meeting in Brussels called for Belarusian airlines to be banned from the 27-nation bloc’s airspace and urged EU-based carriers to avoid flying over the former Soviet republic, according to a joint statement.

They also agreed to widen the list of Belarusian individuals they already sanction and called on the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) to urgently investigate Belarus forcing a Ryanair plane to land in Minsk on a Greece-Lithuania flight on Sunday.

“The reaction should be swift and be severe,” Belgian Prime Minister Alexander de Croo told journalists ahead of the EU summit that began at 1700 GMT.

“We will not tolerate any attempt to play Russian roulette with the lives of innocent civilians,” EU chief Charles Michel said.

Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney, using language that was echoed by a number of other EU countries, said: “This was effectively aviation piracy, state sponsored.”

EURACTIV was informed that Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban was far too silent over Belarus and Russia.

The EU and other Western countries also called for the release of Protasevich, who was detained when the plane landed.

His social media feed from exile has been one of the last remaining independent outlets for news about Belarus since a mass crackdown on dissent last year. Sofia Sapega, a 23-year-old student travelling with him, was also detained.

Vilnius university says its student travelling with Protasevich also detained, demands release

A Belarusian university in Vilnius on Monday (24 May) said its student Sofia Sapega, 23, who was travelling with journalist Roman Protasevich, had also been detained when their flight was diverted there from Vilnius and demanded her release.

Together with co-founder Stepan Putilo, Protasevich until recently ran the Nexta channel on messaging app Telegram, which helped organise the protests that were the biggest challenge to Lukashenko’s 26-year rule.

With close to two million subscribers on the service, 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.

Options appear limited

Some airlines and countries did not wait for guidance on how to respond to the diversion of the Ryanair flight.

Britain said it was instructing British airlines to cease flights over Belarus and that it would suspend the air permit for Belarus’s national carrier Belavia with immediate effect. KLM, the Dutch arm of carrier Air France KLM, will temporarily halt flights, Dutch news agency ANP reported.

Still, the options for Western retaliation appear limited.

The Montreal-based ICAO has no regulatory power, and the EU has no authority over flights taking off and landing in Belarus or flying over its airspace, apart from direct flights that originate or land in Europe.

Belarus lies on the flight path of routes within Europe and between Europe and Asia, and skirting Belarus would slow flights down and cost airlines money.

The EU and the United States imposed several rounds of financial sanctions against Minsk last year, which had no effect on the behaviour of authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko, who withstood mass demonstrations against his rule after a disputed election.

Lukashenko denies election fraud. Since the disputed vote, authorities rounded up thousands of his opponents, with all major opposition figures now in jail or exile.

‘Bomb threat’

NEXTA, the news service where Protasevich worked before setting up his own widely followed blog, ran an interview with his mother, who said that as soon as she heard reports of a bomb scare on a flight, she knew it was a plot to capture him.

Minutes to touchdown: the moment the Belarusian journalist knew his time was up

Ryanair Flight 4978 had already begun its descent into the Lithuanian capital when the pilot announced that the plane would be suddenly diverting to Minsk, capital of neighbouring Belarus.

“I just want to say that my son is simply a hero, simply a hero,” Natalia Protasevich said, weeping. “I truly hope that the international community will wake up for him.”

Belarus says it acted in response to a false bomb threat written in the name of the Palestinian militant group Hamas. Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum denied his group had any knowledge or connection to the matter.

Belarus said its ground controllers had given guidance to the flight but had not ordered it to land. State media said the intervention was ordered personally by Lukashenko.

Ryanair boss Michael O’Leary, who referred to the incident as a state-sponsored hijacking, said he believed security agents had been on the flight.

Lithuanian authorities said five passengers never arrived, suggesting three others besides detainees Protasevich and Sapega had disembarked in Minsk.

US President Joe Biden slammed the forced diversion of the plane and arrest of Protasevich as “a direct affront to international norms” and said the video appeared to have been made “under duress”.

“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,” Biden said, in a White House statement.

NATO slammed a “serious and dangerous incident” and said envoys from the military alliance were to discuss it on Tuesday.

Britain’s Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab raised the possibility of that Russia had backed the operation.

“It’s very difficult to believe that this kind of action could have been taken without at least the acquiescence of the authorities in Moscow,” he told parliament.

But Russia has dismissed the outrage in the West.

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”.

Ukraine said it would halt direct flights between the two countries and over Belarus.

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