US Secretary of State Antony Blinken joined European leaders in condemning Belarus for forcing a Ryanair flight carrying an opposition activist to land in the Belarusian capital, Minsk.
European leaders, some of whom have already denounced the decision to arrest blogger Roman Protasevich as an “act of state terror and kidnapping,” will meet on Monday to discuss what actions could be taken against Belarus, for forcing the diversion of the plane during his flight from Athens to Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania.
Latvia and Lithuania said that the airspace over Belarus should be considered unsafe, and Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkēvičs said it should be. closed to all international flights. Lithuanian police said there was initiated a pre-trial investigation in “enforced disappearance”.
Dominic Raab, the UK Foreign Secretary, said: “We are coordinating with our allies. This bizarre action by Lukashenko will have serious implications. “
Roman Protasevich, a former editor of the influential Telegram channels Nexta and Nexta Live, was detained by police in Minsk after Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko ordered his military to launch a Mig-29 fighter to engage the plane.
Blinken said the United States “strongly condemns the forced diversion of a flight between two EU member states and the subsequent removal and arrest of journalist Raman Pratasevich in Minsk. We demand their immediate release ”.
“This shocking act perpetrated by the Lukashenka regime endangered the lives of more than 120 passengers, including US citizens,” the statement said. “Initial reports suggesting the involvement of the Belarusian security services and the use of Belarusian military aircraft to escort the aircraft are deeply concerning and require a full investigation,” he said.
The airliner flying from Greece to Lithuania on Sunday was forced to make an emergency landing in Minsk after an alleged threat. According to online flight data, the plane was over Belarusian airspace when it deviated from its course, but it was closer to Vilnius than to Minsk. Upon landing, the authorities detained Protasevich.
The 26-year-old journalist worked for the Poland-based online news service Nexta, which broadcast footage of the mass protests against Lukashenko last year via the Telegram messaging app at a time when it was difficult for foreign media. do it.
Protasevich is accused by the Belarusian authorities of organizing mass riots and inciting social hatred, accusations that he denies.
“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.
Lithuania, a member state of the EU, where Protasevich is based, urged the European Union and NATO to respond.
Ursula von der Leyen, head of the EU executive European Commission, tweeted that Protasevich must be released immediately and that those responsible for the “Ryanair hijacking must be punished.”
Simon Coveney, Minister for Foreign Affairs of Ireland, where Ryanair is based, welcomed Von der Leyen’s comments, adding: “Belarus will take the inaction or indecision of the EU as a weakness.“
The President of the European Council, Charles Michel, condemned the forced landing of the plane in the “strongest possible terms”.
“I call on the Belarusian authorities to immediately release the detained passenger and fully guarantee his rights,” Michel said, warning that the incident “would not be without consequences.”
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said the incident was “Serious and dangerous” and required an international investigation.
Tom Tugendhat, chairman of the UK foreign affairs select committee, said: “If planes can be shot down by force … to punish the political opponents of tyrants, journalists here in the UK, politicians from any part of Europe will find it more difficult. ” to talk.”
Ryanair issued a statement on the incident, saying the plane was searched when it was forced to land in Minsk and “nothing strange was found“On board:” Ryanair has informed the responsible European and national security agencies, and we sincerely apologize to all passengers affected by this unfortunate delay, which was beyond Ryanair’s control. “
The statement did not mention reports that a military plane had been dispatched to escort the passenger plane or that a passenger on the flight had been detained during the layover in Minsk, drawing criticism online.
Data from the website flightradar24.com showed that the plane deviated just two minutes before it was due to cross into Lithuanian airspace. After seven hours on the ground, the plane took off and finally landed in Vilnius, where Lithuanian Prime Minister Ingrida Simonyte was waiting to receive the passengers.
“This is a completely unprecedented situation that they have had to face,” he told passengers.
Lukashenko’s press service said on his Telegram channel that he had given the order to divert the flight and had ordered a Mig-29 fighter jet to accompany the plane.
The EU has already sanctioned nearly 60 Belarusian officials, including Lukashenko and his son Victor, on allegations of election fraud and then a harsh crackdown on protesters that included widespread reports of brutal torture in Belarusian prisons. Minsk has increasingly turned to Moscow for support, isolating it from the West but also limiting the effect of possible sanctions from Brussels or Washington.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism