Belarusian transport ministry director Artem Sikorski said the message read: “We Hamas soldiers demand that Israel stop shooting at the Gaza area.
“We demand that the European Union stop supporting Israel (…) if our demands are not met, a bomb will explode (on board the Ryanair plane) over Vilnius. “
Sikorski was speaking out in the face of global condemnation after Belarus forced a flight from Athens to Lithuania carrying a prominent Belarusian dissident to land in Minsk. Roman Protasevich was then escorted from the plane and arrested.
The European Union, the United States and the United Kingdom on Sunday condemned the hijacking of a flight by Belarus to arrest Protasevich.
The President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, declared that “the scandalous and illegal behavior of the regime in Belarus will have consequences”.
Brussels said it had summoned Belarusian ambassador to the EU, Aleksandr Mikhnevich, to demand the journalist’s release.
“Ambassador Mikhnevich has been informed of the strong condemnation by EU institutions and EU member states of the coercive act by which the Belarusian authorities endangered the safety of passengers and crew “, read a statement from the EU’s foreign affairs department.
“Secretary-General Sannino has expressed the EU’s position that the outrageous action by Belarusian authorities constitutes yet another blatant attempt to silence all opposition voices in the country and demanded the immediate release of Mr. . Pratasevich. “
Belarus forced Ryanair flight FR4978 from Athens to Vilnius in Lithuania on Sunday to divert before arresting activist Roman Protasevich.
Pratasevich, 26, is the founder of a chain of messaging apps in Belarus, which has been a key information carrier for opponents of the authoritarian Belarusian president.
The Belarusian presidential press service said that President Alexander Lukashenko personally ordered a MiG-29 fighter jet to accompany the Ryanair plane to Minsk airport.
He said a bomb threat was received as the plane flew over Belarusian territory; Officials later said no explosives were found on board.
How did Europe react?
The Head of Foreign Affairs of the European Union, Josep Borrell, said in a press release the arrest constitutes “yet another blatant attempt by the Belarusian authorities to silence all voices of the opposition”.
“By carrying out this coercive act, the Belarusian authorities have endangered the safety of passengers and crew. An international investigation into this incident must be carried out to determine any violation of international aviation rules, ”he added.
Lithuania said Belarus had effectively taken EU citizens hostage by hijacking the plane.
“The whole EU has been brutally attacked and must respond in the strictest way,” said his foreign ministry.
He called on the bloc of 27 countries to consider issuing a joint EU recommendation to avoid entering Belarus airspace.
He also wants the International Civil Aviation Authority to deprive Belarus of its membership.
US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said Washington “strongly condemns” the “cheeky and shocking move by the Belarusian regime to hijack a commercial flight to arrest a journalist.”
“We demand an international investigation and we are coordinating with our partners the next steps,” he wrote on Twitter.
Brussels and Washington have both called for Pratasevich’s immediate release.
British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said London “is coordinating with our allies”. “This extravagant action by Lukashenko will have serious implications,” he said.
What does Belarus say?
The Belarusian foreign ministry insisted on Monday that the country’s authorities had acted “in full compliance with international rules” and accused Europe of politicizing the incident.
“We are struck by the haste with which certain countries and European structures have made openly belligerent statements,” said spokesman Anatoliy Glaz.
The Russian Foreign Ministry also criticized the West’s response with spokeswoman Maria Zakharova writing on Facebook: “It is shocking that the West is calling the incident in Belarusian airspace ‘shocking’. “
She accused Western countries of hypocrisy, citing “violent kidnappings, forced landings and illegal arrests”.
Last November, the Belarusian security services (KGB) placed Pratasevich on the list of “individuals involved in terrorist activities”. He was a co-founder of the Nexta Telegram channel which played a leading role in the wave of protests in Belarus against the 2020 re-election of President Lukashenko, who has held the post since 1994.
What is the context of this story?
The protest movement emerged following the August 2020 presidential election, which was deemed fraudulent by the opposition and Western countries.
It has seen weeks of protests as tens of thousands of people gathered in Minsk and other cities – a huge mobilization for a country of 9.5 million people.
But protests have gradually faltered in the face of mass arrests and police violence that have left at least four people dead, with continued judicial harassment and heavy prison sentences handed down to activists and journalists.
The EU has so far imposed sanctions on top Belarusian officials, including Lukashenko, amid allegations of electoral fraud and a violent crackdown on protesters. These sanctions consist of a travel ban to the EU and an asset freeze for 88 people and 7 entities.
Pratasevich, who had fled the country for Poland, faces charges that can carry a prison sentence of up to 15 years.
Exiled Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya called on the International Civil Aviation Organization to open an investigation.
“It is absolutely obvious that this is a special services operation aimed at hijacking a plane in order to detain activist and blogger Roman Pratasevich,” she said in a statement. “Not a single person flying over Belarus can be sure of their safety.”
What did Ryanair say?
Meanwhile, Ryanair said in a press release Sunday that he “notified the relevant national and European safety and security agencies” after being diverted to Belarus and apologized to all affected passengers “for this regrettable delay, which was beyond Ryanair’s control “.
The carrier has not addressed the arrest of one of its passengers.
The carrier of Latvia, airBaltic, announced Monday that in response to the forced hijacking of the Ryanair flight, he “decided to avoid entering Belarusian airspace until the situation is clarified or a decision is issued by the authorities”.
It has already rerouted two of its flights on Sunday -om Riga to Odessa in Ukraine and from Riga to Tbilisi in Georgia – to avoid entering Belarusian airspace.