The leaders called on their council “to adopt the necessary measures to ban the overflight of EU airspace by Belarusian airlines and prevent access to EU airports by flights operated by these companies”. Besides Pratasevich, they also urged the authorities in Minsk to release his Russian girlfriend, Sofia Sapega, who was taken with him on the plane.
The text was quickly approved by leaders determined to oppose a “strong reaction” to the incident because of the “serious endangerment of air safety and passengers on board by Belarusian authorities”, according to a EU official with direct knowledge of the discussions who was not. allowed to speak publicly about private talks.
Ryanair said Belarusian flight controllers told the crew there was a bomb threat against the plane as it passed through Belarusian airspace on Sunday and ordered it to land. A Belarusian MiG-29 fighter jet was scrambled to escort the plane in a cheeky show of force by Lukashenko, who ruled the country with an iron fist for more than a quarter of a century.
Belarusian authorities subsequently arrested the 26-year-old activist, journalist and leading critic of Lukashenko. Pratasevich and his Russian girlfriend were removed from the plane shortly after it landed, and authorities did not say where they were being held. Ryanair flight FR4978, which started in Athens, Greece, was eventually cleared to continue to Vilnius, Lithuania.
US President Joe Biden has been briefed on the incident and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan raised the issue during his appeal with the Russian Security Council secretary, the White House press secretary said, Jen Psaki. She added that the administration condemned what she called “the shocking act” of hijacking a theft to detain a journalist.
“This constitutes a blatant affront to international peace and security on the part of the regime. We demand an immediate, transparent and credible international investigation into this incident, ”she said, adding that the United States was in contact with NATO, the EU, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. , among other things on the next steps.
EU leaders were particularly forceful in their condemnation of the arrest and ruling against the plane, which flew between two of the bloc’s member countries and was operated by an Irish-based airline, also a member.
The bloc summoned the Belarusian ambassador “to condemn the inadmissible move by Belarusian authorities” and said in a statement that the arrest was once again “yet another blatant 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 it is unbelievable”, while European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said he it was a “hijacking”.
EU leaders have tried to bring Belarus closer to the bloc – to encourage democratic reforms and reduce Russian influence – but have so far failed. Ahead of their summit, some EU leaders threatened additional sanctions -om the removal of landing rights in the bloc for Belarusian national carrier Belavia to exclusions from sporting events.
Even before the EU took action, 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. also avoid Belarus from Tuesday.
UK Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said he had instructed the UK Civil Aviation Authority “to ask airlines to avoid Belarusian airspace in order to ensure passenger safety” . He added that he was suspending the license allowing Belavia to operate in the UK.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has ordered officials to cut air links with Belarus and ban Ukrainian flights through neighboring airspace.
The US and the EU have imposed sanctions on top Belarusian officials amid months of protests, which were sparked by Lukashenko’s re-election to a sixth term in an August 2020 vote that the opposition brought forward. rejected as rigged. More than 34,000 people have been arrested in Belarus since then, and thousands have been beaten.
The Belarusian foreign ministry bristled at what it called “belligerent” statements by the EU, insisting that Minsk acted “in full accordance with international rules”.
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 during the ice hockey world championship in Riga, Latvia. The event was moved from Minsk amid international outcry over the crackdown.
Lufthansa said a flight from Minsk to Frankfurt with 51 people on board was delayed on Monday following a “safety warning”. He was cleared to leave after the plane, passengers and cargo had been searched.
On Sunday, flight tracking sites said the Ryanair flight was about 10 kilometers (6 miles) from the Lithuanian border when it was rerouted. There were conflicting reports about what exactly happened.
Belarusian transport ministry official Artem Sikorsky said Minsk airport received an email about the bomb threat from Palestinian militant group Hamas.
Lukashenko’s press service said he ordered a fighter jet to accompany the plane after being informed of the bomb threat. Deputy Air Force Commander Andrei Gurtsevich told Belarusian state television that the Ryanair crew decided to land in Minsk, adding that the fighter plane had been dispatched “to ensure a safe landing ”.
But Ryanair said in a statement that Belarusian air traffic control ordered the plane to divert to the capital. The plane was searched and no bomb was found.
Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary described the move as “a case of state-funded hijacking … state-sponsored hijacking.”
In an apparent reference to the Belarusian security agency which still bears the Soviet-era KGB name, O’Leary told Irish radio station Newstalk that he believed “some KGB agents got off the plane. In Minsk.
Of the 126 people initially on board the flight, only 121 made it to Vilnius, according to Rolandas Kiskis, head of the Criminal Police Bureau in the Lithuanian capital, where an investigation was opened.
Passengers described Pratasevich’s shock when he realized the plane was going to Minsk.
“I saw this Belarusian guy with his girlfriend sitting right behind us. He panicked when the pilot said the plane was being diverted to Minsk. He said there was the death penalty waiting for him there, ”said passenger Marius Rutkauskas after the plane arrived in Vilnius. “We sat for an hour after landing. Then they started releasing passengers and took these two. We did not see them again. “
Pratasevich was a co-founder of the Nexta channel of the Telegram messaging app, which was instrumental in organizing the anti-Lukashenko protests.
Nearly 2 million Belarusians in the country of 9.3 million people followed the channel, which was the main means of staging protests and offered advice on how to avoid police lines. It also released photos, videos and other material documenting the brutal police crackdown on the protests.
Belarusian authorities called the channel “extremist” and accused Pratasevich in absentia of inciting mass riots and stoking social hatred. He could face 15 years in prison if convicted.
In November, the Belarusian KGB put Pratasevich on a list of those suspected of involvement in terrorism, a worrying sign that he could face even more serious charges. Terrorism carries the death penalty in Belarus, the only country in Europe to maintain the death penalty.
Amid international outrage, Moscow quickly offered its ally a helping hand.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the episode needed to be investigated – but could not be rushed. Moscow and Minsk have close political, economic and military ties, and Lukashenko has counted on Russian support amid Western sanctions.
In a previous hijacking of a passenger flight, a 2004 United Airlines flight from London to Washington carrying singer Yusuf Islam, better known as Cat Stevens, was dispatched to Bangor, Maine, where agents FBI encountered the plane and sent it back to England. . US officials said he was denied access to the United States on national security grounds. He was then allowed to enter the United States