BRUSSELS (AP) – The European Union agreed on Monday to impose sanctions on Belarus, including a ban on airlines from using the airspace and airports of the 27-nation bloc, amid fury over the forced diversion of a passenger plane to arrest an opposition journalist.
In what EU leaders called a blatant “kidnapping” of the Ryanair airliner flying from Greece to Lithuania on Sunday on Sunday, they also demanded the immediate release of journalist Raman Pratasevich, a key enemy of Belarusian authoritarian president Alexander Lukashenko.
A short video of Pratasevich, who ran a popular messaging app that played a key role in helping organize mass protests against Lukashenko, was shown on Belarusian state television on Monday night, a day after he was removed from the flight. Ryanair.
Sitting at a table with his hands folded in front of him and speaking quickly, Pratasevich said he was in a satisfactory state of health and said his treatment in custody was “maximally correct and in accordance with the law.” He added that he was giving evidence to investigators about the organization of mass riots.
In their unusually swift action in Brussels, EU leaders also urged all EU-based carriers to avoid flying over Belarus, decided to impose sanctions on officials related to the diversion of Sunday flights, and urged ‘International Civil Aviation Organization to start an investigation into what to see as an unprecedented move and what some said was equivalent to state terrorism or piracy.
The leaders called on their council “to take the necessary measures to ban the overflight of EU airspace by Belarusian airlines and to prevent access to EU airports from flights operated by these airlines.” . In addition to Pratasevich, they also urged the Minsk authorities to release his Russian girlfriend, Sofia Sapega, who was taken off the plane with him.
The text was quickly approved by leaders who were determined to respond with a “strong reaction” to the incident due to the “serious danger to air security and passengers on board by the Belarusian authorities,” according to a Belarusian official. the EU with direct knowledge of the debates that were not allowed to speak publicly about private conversations.
Ryanair said Belarusian flight controllers told the crew there was a bomb threat against the plane as it was crossing Belarusian airspace this Sunday and ordered it to land. A Belarusian MiG-29 fighter jet was flown to escort the plane in a blatant show of strength by Lukashenko, who has ruled the country with an iron fist for more than a quarter of a century.
Belarusian authorities then arrested 26-year-old Lukashenko activist, journalist and critic. Pratasevich and his Russian girlfriend were removed from the plane shortly after landing, and authorities have not said where they are detained. Ryanair flight FR4978, which began in Athens, Greece, was allowed to continue to Vilnius, Lithuania.
U.S. President Joe Biden received information about the incident and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan raised the issue in his call with Russian Security Council secretary Jen Psaki said White House press release. He added that the administration condemned what he called the “shocking fact” of diverting a flight to arrest a journalist.
“It is a blatant affront to the regime’s international peace and security. We demand an immediate, transparent and credible international investigation into this incident, “he said, adding that the United States was in contact with NATO, the EU, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, among others. others, on the next steps.
EU leaders were particularly blunt in condemning the arrest and movement against the plane, which flew between two of the bloc’s member countries and was operating an Irish-based airline.
The bloc summoned the Belarussian ambassador “to condemn the inadmissible passage of the Belarusian authorities” and said in a statement that the arrest was again “another flagrant attempt to silence all voices of the opposition in the country.”
Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis said that “the scandalous incident in Belarus shows signs of state terrorism and is unbelievable,” while European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said it amounted to a “kidnapping.”
EU leaders have tried to bring Belarus closer to the bloc (to encourage democratic reforms and reduce Russia’s influence), but so far they have failed. Ahead of their summit, some EU leaders threatened further sanctions: giving up the bloc’s landing rights for Belarusian national company Belavia until exclusions from sporting events.
Even before the EU acted, Latvia’s airBaltic said it would avoid Belarusian airspace and the Lithuanian government said it would instruct all flights to and from the Baltic country to avoid Belarus as well from Tuesday.
British Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said he had instructed the UK Civil Aviation Authority “to ask airlines to avoid Belarusian airspace to keep passengers safe”. He added that he was suspending the permit that allowed Belavia to operate in the UK
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy ordered officials to move to cut off air links with Belarus and ban Ukrainian flights through the neighbor’s airspace.
The United States and the EU have imposed sanctions on top Belarusian officials amid months of protests, which were triggered by Lukashenko’s re-election to a sixth term in an August 2020 vote that the opposition rejected as a call. Since then, more than 34,000 people have been arrested in Belarus and thousands have been beaten.
The Belarussian Foreign Ministry called the EU’s statements “belligerent” and insisted that Minsk acted “in full compliance with international standards.”
He ordered all Latvian diplomats to leave the country after the Belarusian flag was replaced on Monday by the white and red flag used by the opposition at the World Ice Hockey Championships in Riga, Latvia. The event moved from Minsk amid international outcry for repression.
Lufthansa said a flight from Minsk to Frankfurt with 51 people on board was delayed on Monday following a “safety warning”. Departure was allowed after searching the plane, passengers and cargo.
On Sunday, flight tracking sites indicated that Ryanair’s flight was about 10 kilometers (6 miles) from the Lithuanian border when it was diverted. There were conflicting reports about what exactly happened.
Belarusian Transport Ministry official Artem Sikorsky said Minsk airport had received an email about the bomb threat from Palestinian militant group Hamas.
Lukashenko’s press service said it had ordered a fighter jet to accompany the plane after it was informed of the bomb threat. Air Force Deputy Commander Andrei Gurtsevich told Belarusian state television that the Ryanair crew decided to land in Minsk and added that the fighter jet was sent “to ensure a safe landing.”
But Ryanair said in a statement that Belarusian air traffic control instructed the plane to detour to the capital. The plane was searched and no bombs were found.
Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary described the measure as “a case of state-sponsored kidnapping … state-sponsored piracy.”
In an apparent reference to the Belarusian security agency that still bears the name of the Soviet-era KGB, O’Leary told Irish radio station Newstalk that he believed that “some KGB agents unloaded from the plane “in Minsk.
Of the 126 people on board the flight initially, only 121 arrived in Vilnius, according to Rolandas Kiskis, head of the criminal police office in the Lithuanian capital where an investigation has been launched.
Passengers described Pratasevich’s shock when he realized the plane was going to Minsk.
“I saw this Belarusian boy and his girlfriend sitting behind us. He was frightened when the pilot said the plane was diverting to Minsk. He said there was a death penalty waiting for him, “said passenger Marius Rutkauskas after the plane finally arrived in Vilnius.” We sat for an hour after landing. Then they began to release passengers and they caught them. We never saw them again. “
Pratasevich was a co-founder of the Nexta channel of the messaging application Telegram, which played a prominent role in organizing the protests against Lukashenko.
About 2 million Belarusians in a nation of 9.3 million people have followed the canal, which has been the main conduit for organizing demonstrations and offered advice on how to dodge police cordons. He has also posted photos, videos and other materials documenting the brutal police crackdown on the protests.
Belarusian authorities have called the channel “extremist” and accused Pratasevich of failing to incite mass unrest and fuel social hatred. He could be sentenced to 15 years in prison.
In November, the Belarusian KGB put Pratasevich on a list of people suspected of involvement in terrorism, a disastrous sign that it could face even more serious charges. Terrorism is punishable by death in Belarus, the only country in Europe that retains the death penalty.
Amid international outrage, Moscow quickly offered a helping hand to its ally.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said the episode needs to be investigated, but that it could not be rushed. Moscow and Minsk have close political, economic and military relations, and Lukashenko has relied on Russian support amid Western sanctions.
In a previous diversion of a passenger flight, a 2004 United Airlines flight from London to Washington carrying singer Yusuf Islam, better known as Cat Stevens, was sent to Bangor, Maine, where FBI agents they met the plane and sent it back to England. . U.S. officials said he was denied access to the United States for national security reasons. He was later allowed to enter the US
Isachenkov was reported from Moscow and Petrequin from Brussels. Associated Press writers Liudas Dapkus collaborated in Vilnius, Lithuania, Sylvia Hui and Jill Lawless in London, David Koenig in Dallas, Alexandra Jaffe in Washington, and Geir Moulson in Berlin.