BRUSSELS (AP) — The European Union
agreed Monday to sanction Belarus
, including barring its airlines from using EU airspace and airports, in response to outrage over the forced divergence of a passenger plane to arrest an opposition journalist.
In a brazen "hijacking" of a Ryanair
from Greece to Lithuania on Sunday, EU leaders demanded the immediate release of journalist Raman Pratasevich
, a key foe of authoritarian Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko
Pratasevich, who ran a popular messaging app that played a key role in organizing massive protests against Lukashenko, was shown in a brief video clip on Belarusian state television
Monday night, a day after he was removed from the Ryanair flight.
Pratasevich, who was sitting at a table with his hands folded in front of him and speaking quickly, stated that he was in good health
and that his treatment in custody was “maximally correct and according to law.” He also stated that he was providing evidence to investigators about organizing mass disturbances.
In an unusually quick response in Brussels, EU leaders also urged all EU-based carriers to avoid flying over Belarus, decided to sanction officials involved in Sunday's flight diversion, and urged the International Civil Aviation Organization to launch an investigation
into what they see as an unprecedented move, which some have compared to state terrorism or piracy.
In addition to Pratasevich, the leaders urged Minsk authorities to release his Russian girlfriend, Sofia Sapega, who was taken off the plane with him.
According to an EU official with direct knowledge of the discussions who was not authorized to speak publicly about the private talks, the text was quickly endorsed by the leaders, who were determined to respond with a "strong reaction" to the incident due to the "serious endangering of aviation safety and passengers on board by Belarussian authorities."
A Belarusian MiG-29 fighter jet was scrambled to escort the plane in a brazen display of force by Lukashenko, who has ruled the country with an iron fist for more than a quarter-century.
Pratasevich and his Russian girlfriend were taken off the plane shortly after it landed, and authorities have not said where they are being held. Ryanair Flight FR4978 began in Athens, Greece, and was eventually allowed to continue on to Vilnius, Lithuania.
According to White House press secretary Jen Psaki
, US President Joe Biden
was briefed on the incident, and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan raised the issue in a call with the secretary of the Russian Security Council. She added that the administration condemned the "shocking act" of diverting a flight to detain a journalist.
“It is a brazen affront to international peace and security by the regime, and we demand an immediate international, transparent, and credible investigation of this incident,” she said, adding that the US was in contact with NATO, the EU, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, among other organizations, about next steps.
EU leaders were particularly outspoken in their condemnation of the arrest and the action against the plane, which was flying between two of the bloc's member countries and was operated by an airline based in Ireland
, which is also a member.
The EU summoned Belarus' ambassador "to condemn the inadmissible step of the Belarusian authorities" and said in a statement that the arrest was "yet another blatant attempt to silence all opposition voices in the country."
Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis called the incident in Belarus “scandalous” and “unbelievable,” while EU Commission
President Ursula von der Leyen called it a “hijacking.”
EU leaders have attempted to bring Belarus closer to the bloc in order to encourage democratic reforms and reduce Russia's influence, but have so far been unsuccessful. Ahead of their summit, some EU leaders threatened more sanctions
, ranging from the suspension of landing rights in the bloc for Belarus' national carrier Belavia to exclusion from sporting events.
Even before the EU took action, Latvia's airBaltic said it would avoid Belarusian airspace, and Lithuania's government said it would instruct all flights to and from the Baltic country to avoid Belarus beginning Tuesday.
British Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said he had instructed the UK Civil Aviation Authority to “request airlines avoid Belarusian airspace in order to keep passengers safe.” He also said he had suspended Belavia’s operating permit in the UK.
Ukraine's President, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, has directed that the air link with Belarus be severed and that Ukrainian flights be prohibited from using the neighbor's airspace.
The United States
and the European Union have sanctioned top Belarusian officials following months of protests sparked by Lukashenko's reelection to a sixth term in an August 2020 vote that the opposition called rigged. More than 34,000 people
have been arrested and thousands have been beaten in Belarus since then.
Belarus' Foreign Ministry reacted angrily to what it called "belligerent" EU statements, insisting that Minsk acted "in full compliance with international rules."
It expelled all Latvian diplomats after the Belarusian flag was replaced Monday with the white-and-red flag of the opposition at the world ice hockey championship in Riga, Latvia, which was relocated from Minsk due to international outrage over the crackdown.
Lufthansa said a flight from Minsk to Frankfurt with 51 people on board was delayed Monday due to a "security warning," but that it was allowed to depart after the plane, passengers, and cargo were searched.
On Sunday, flight tracking sites indicated that the Ryanair flight was about 10 kilometers (6 miles) from the Lithuanian border
when it was diverted, with conflicting reports as to what exactly happened.
Artem Sikorsky, a Belarusian transport ministry official, said the Minsk airport received an email from the Palestinian
militant group Hamas
about the bomb threat.
After learning of the bomb threat, Lukashenko's press service said he ordered a fighter jet to accompany the plane. Deputy air force commander Andrei Gurtsevich told Belarusian state television that the Ryanair crew decided to land in Minsk, and that the fighter jet was sent "to ensure a safe landing."
However, Ryanair said in a statement that Belarusian air traffic control ordered the plane to divert to the capital, where it was searched and no bomb was discovered.
Ryanair CEO Michael O'Leary called the move "state-sponsored hijacking... state-sponsored piracy."
O'Leary told Irish radio station Newstalk that he believes “some KGB agents offloaded from the aircraft” in Minsk, an apparent reference to the Belarusian security agency, which still goes by its Soviet-era name KGB.
According to Rolandas Kiskis, chief of the criminal police
bureau in Vilnius, where an investigation has begun, only 121 of the 126 people on board the flight initially made it to Vilnius.
Passengers described Pratasevich's surprise when he discovered the plane was headed to Minsk.
“I saw this Belarusian guy with his girlfriend sitting right behind us. He freaked out when the pilot said the plane was diverted to Minsk. He said there was a death penalty
awaiting him there,” passenger Marius Rutkauskas said after the plane arrived in Vilnius.
Pratasevich was a co-founder of Telegram's Nexta channel, which was instrumental in organizing anti-Lukashenko protests.
In a country of 9.3 million people, nearly 2 million Belarusians have followed the channel, which has served as the main conduit for organizing protests and providing advice on how to avoid police cordons, as well as running photos
, video, and other materials documenting the brutal police crackdown on the protests.
Belarus authorities have labeled the channel "extremist," and Pratasevich has been charged in absentia with inciting mass riots and inciting social hatred, with a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison if convicted.
Pratasevich was placed on a list of people suspected of involvement in terrorism by the Belarusian KGB in November, an ominous sign that he could face even more serious charges. Terrorism is punishable by death in Belarus, Europe's only country that still uses the death penalty.
In the midst of the international outrage, Moscow stepped in to assist its ally.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov stated that the incident must be investigated, but that it cannot be rushed. Moscow and Minsk have close political, economic, and military
ties, and Lukashenko has relied on Russian support in the face of Western sanctions.
In a previous diversion of a passenger flight, a United Airlines
flight from London
to Washington carrying singer Yusuf Islam, better known as Cat Stevens, was diverted to Bangor, Maine
, where FBI
agents met the plane and returned him to England
. U.S. officials said he was denied entry to the United States on national security grounds, but he was later allowed in.