The EU and Britain notified Belarus of sanctions and punitive measures against its national airline, as European flights over the country’s airspace were suspended in response to the arrest of a dissident on a “hijacked” Ryanair flight.
Attention was also focused on Russia’s role in the crash landing of Flight FR4978 in Minsk, as UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab told the House of Commons that it was unlikely that it would have been done without Kremlin approval.
Raab described the “reckless and dangerous” arrest of opposition blogger Roman Protasevich and his Russian girlfriend, Sofia Sapega as “a shocking assault on civil aviation and an assault on international law” when the government announced the suspension of Belavia’s operating permit, the country’s national airline.
On Monday night, unconfirmed reports suggested that Protasevich had been hospitalized in Minsk since his arrest due to heart problems and that he was now in critical condition.
Sunday’s incident was described by the President of the European Council, Charles Michel, as an “international scandal” that put “the lives of Europeans at risk” when he arrived to preside over a summit of the 27 heads of state and government of the EU on Monday night.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the actions of the Belarusian authorities “were unprecedented” and described the attempts by the Alexander Lukashenko regime to explain the crash landing in response to a Hamas bomb threat as “totally unbelievable” .
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen tweeted: “We will not leave this unanswered. The leaders will discuss options for additional sanctions. “
He said the sanctions would cover the people involved in the kidnapping, the companies that finance the Belarusian regime and the aviation sector, but did not elaborate.
“We will continue to pressure the regime until it respects freedom of opinion and of the media. Roman Pratasevich must be released immediately, ”he said.
In addition to agreeing to sanctions to be added to those imposed on nearly 60 Belarusian officials, including Lukashenko and his son Victor, EU heads of state and government are expected to ask EU airlines to avoid Belarusian airspace. and “take the necessary measures to prohibit the overflight of EU airspace by Belarusian airlines and prevent access to EU airports”, which is a major blow to the country’s national airline.
According to a leaked draft of a summit communiqué, the leaders will also ask the International Civil Aviation Organization to “urgently investigate this unacceptable and unprecedented incident.”
But as more details of the flight’s crash landed emerged on Monday, questions arose about Russia’s role, from where careful support has been offered to the Lukashenko regime since Sunday.
When asked about possible Russian involvement, Raab told the Commons: “We don’t have any clear details on that and I will be careful what I say at this point. But, as he says, it is very difficult to believe that this kind of action could have been taken without at least the acquiescence of the Moscow authorities, but as I say, it is still not clear. “
US White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Joe Biden’s national security adviser Jake Sullivan had “raised our strong concerns” about Belarus’ action with his Kremlin counterpart.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the case “should be assessed without haste and without haste and based on all available information.” He pointed to past incidents in which Austria suspended a flight with Bolivian President Evo Morales on board in 2013 and Ukraine suspended a flight in 2016 when its Foreign Ministry issued a statement describing the EU’s response as “shocking.”
Protasevich and Sapega were flying from Athens to Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital, when the plane was diverted to Minsk within minutes of leaving Belarusian airspace in what Ryanair later described as an “act of aviation piracy.”
Protasevich, a former editor of the influential Telegram channels Nexta and Nexta Live, one of the main Belarusian independent media groups, was detained by the police after Lukashenko ordered his military to launch a Mig-29 fighter to engage the plane.
Passengers on board said Protasevich began handing over his phone and other personal items to Sapega, a Russian national studying at the European University of Humanities (EHU) in Lithuania, when he learned that the flight would make an emergency landing.
“I am facing the death penalty here,” a trembling Protasevich allegedly told a fellow traveler from the plane before the Belarusian police took him away. The mass disturbance charges against him carry a sentence of up to 15 years. His current whereabouts are unknown.
According to his colleagues, Protasevich had sent them messages alleging that he was being followed by a man in the departure lounge in Athens who he suspected of being a Belarusian KGB agent. The man was said to be behind him in the queue to board and that he had tried to take a photo of his documents before asking Protasevich a “stupid question” in Russian and leaving.
EHU has said that Sapega had also been detained by the Minsk investigation committee for “unfounded and fabricated conditions”. He was preparing to defend his master’s thesis in Vilnius, the university said.
Russia confirmed on Monday that it had contacted Sapega. According to the Russian BBC service, he managed to text his mother with a single word: “Mom.”
Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary said he believed Belarusian KGB agents were on the plane.
In an interview on Ireland’s Newstalk breakfast show, Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary said that “it appears that the authorities intended to remove a journalist and his traveling companion … we believe there were some KGB agents unloaded at the airport as well. “
O’Leary’s comments were the first official confirmation of reports that four other passengers had disembarked in Minsk after the emergency landing, sparking speculation that security services were following Protasevich before the plane was seen. forced to land. O’Leary said he believed it was the first time such an incident had occurred with a European airline.
Upon arriving in Brussels, Irish Taoiseach Micheal Martin said that the “downing” of the Ryanair plane had been “shockingly reckless and unacceptable” and that he would encourage his fellow leaders to give a “very firm and forceful response”.
Belarusian ambassadors across Europe, including London, Berlin and Brussels, were summoned by their hosts on Monday for a reprimand for Sunday’s extraordinary events.
Raab said the episode would come up when Britain hosts G7 leaders at a summit next month. “We actually have several levers, but let’s not pretend they are a silver bullet,” he said.
However, the EU has a key role. While relations have deteriorated since Lukashenko cracked down on protesters against what they believe was a rigged presidential election last August, Belarus remains part of the EU’s “Eastern Partnership” with six states close to the Russia’s border designed to deepen relations.
However, tensions in the region continued to rise on Monday, when Minsk expelled the Latvian ambassador after officials in Riga raised a white, red and white flag in a central square in a show of solidarity with the Belarusian opposition. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy also announced that the country would stop air traffic with Belarus.
Minsk has blamed the West for escalating tensions, calling the accusations about the incident “hasty and openly belligerent.”
“The situation is being intentionally politicized, and there are unfounded accusations and labeling,” the Belarusian Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism