European Union considers upping sanctions as UK and US call for international probe over diversion of Ryanair flight.
Belarus’ forced diversion of a plane travelling within the European Union in order to arrest a prominent opposition journalist has widened a rift between Western powers and Minsk, prompting calls for further sanctions and an international probe over the incident.
Minsk forced the Ryanair flight from Athens, Greece, to Vilnius, Lithuania, to land in Minsk, the Belarusian capital, on Sunday after it scrambled a fighter jet, allegedly in response to a bomb threat.
On its landing, Belarusian authorities took journalist Roman Protasevich, who was on board, into custody.
Protasevich is wanted in Belarus on “extremism” charges and stands accused of organising mass riots against the country’s longtime President Alexander Lukashenko, as well as inciting social hatred – allegations he denies.
Sunday’s incident led to international outrage.
Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda accused Minsk of undertaking a “state-sponsored terror act” and called for “serious sanctions” against Lukashenko’s government, while the EU’s executive arm labelled the move a “hijacking”.
But Russia, an ally of Lukashenko, accused Western powers of hypocrisy over their remarks.
“It is shocking that the West calls the incident in Belarusian airspace ‘shocking’,” Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova wrote on Facebook.
“Either (they) should be shocked by … the forced (landing) in Austria of the Bolivian president’s plane at the request of the United States … Or (they) should not be shocked by similar behaviour by others.”
The plane diversion is expected to top the agenda at a two-day summit of EU leaders, who were united in their condemnation of Lukashenko, that begins Monday.
EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell condemned the “inadmissible step” as “yet another blatant attempt by the Belarusian authorities to silence all opposition voices”.
Borrell also indicated toughened EU sanctions against Belarus were incoming.
The United States and former EU member the United Kingdom called for the immediate release of Protasevich and demanded the council of the International Civil Aviation Organization investigated the incident.
Ryanair Chief Executive Michael O’Leary said Sunday’s incident was “state-sponsored piracy”.
“It appears the intent of the authorities was to remove a journalist and his travelling companion,” he told Irish radio station Newstalk on Sunday.
The Belarusian foreign ministry said on Monday that Minsk would be ready to let experts visit if needed for an investigation into Sunday’s incident, Russia’s RIA news agency reported.
However, it insisted authorities acted legally when they diverted the plane and accused Western nations of making unfounded allegations against Minsk for political reasons.
“There is no doubt that the actions of our competent authorities … fully met established international rules,” Belarusian foreign ministry spokesman Anatoly Glaz said in a statement.
“Unfounded accusations are being made.”
The development comes amid tensions in Belarus, which saw unprecedented mass anti-government protests after a disputed election in August last year that handed Lukashenko a sixth presidential term.
Police launched an immediate crackdown on the demonstrations, reportedly detaining thousands of people and beating thousands more who had taken to the streets.
The EU and the US have previously sanctioned Lukashenko and dozens of officials and businessmen tied to his government over its actions.
Although the protests died down during the winter, Minsk has continued to take action against the country’s opposition and independent media.
Last week, 11 staff members of the TUT.by news website, an independent outlet, were detained by police.
The website is currently blocked in Belarus.