By RAF CASERT, SAMUEL PETREQUIN and VLADIMIR ISACHENKOV
BRUSSELS (AP) – The European Union on Monday agreed to impose sanctions on Belarus, including banning its airlines from using the airspace and airports of the 27-nation bloc, amid fury by the forcible hijacking of a passenger plane to arrest an opposition journalist.
Reacting to what EU leaders called the shameless ‘hijack’ of the Ryanair airliner flying from Greece to Lithuania on Sunday, they also demanded the immediate release of journalist Raman Pratasevich, a key enemy of the president Belarusian authoritarian Alexander Lukashenko.
“We will not tolerate that one can try to play Russian roulette with the lives of innocent civilians,” said EU Council chief Charles Michel, who chaired the EU meeting.
A brief video clip of Pratasevich, who ran a popular messaging app that played a key role in helping to organize huge protests against Lukashenko, was shown on Belarusian public television on Monday evening, a day after he was kicked off the flight. from Ryanair.
Sitting at a table with his hands folded in front of him and speaking quickly, Pratasevich said he was in good health and said his treatment in detention was “as correct as possible and in accordance with the law”. He added that he was testifying to investigators about the organization of mass unrest.
In their exceptionally swift action in Brussels, EU leaders also urged all EU-based carriers to avoid overflying Belarus, decided to impose sanctions on those responsible for Sunday’s hijacking and called on those responsible for the hijacking on Sunday. urged the International Civil Aviation Organization to open an investigation into what they considered an unprecedented move and what some said amounted to state terrorism or piracy.
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.” In addition to calling for Pratasevich’s release, they also urged authorities in Minsk to release his Russian girlfriend, Sofia Sapega, who was taken with him on the plane.
The text was quickly approved by the leaders who were determined to respond with a “strong reaction” to the incident because of “the serious endangerment of air and passenger safety on board by Belarusian authorities,” said an EU official with direct knowledge of the discussions. who was not allowed to speak publicly about the 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.
“This is an attack on democracy,” said Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Executive Commission. “This is an attack on freedom of expression. And it is an attack on European sovereignty. And this outrageous behavior requires a strong response. “
Von der Leyen added that a € 3 billion investment and economic package for Belarus will remain pending until Belarus “becomes democratic”.
US President Joe Biden said on Monday evening that he had asked his team to develop appropriate options to hold officials accountable, in close coordination with the European Union, other allies and partners and international organizations.
“This scandalous incident and the video Mr. Pratasevich seems to have made under duress are shameful attacks on political dissent and press freedom. The United States joins countries around the world in calling for his release, as well as the release of the hundreds of political prisoners who are unjustly held by the Lukashenka regime, ”Biden’s statement read.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki earlier said National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan raised the issue during a call with the Russian Security Council secretary.
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.
EU leaders have tried to bring Belarus closer to the bloc – to encourage democratic reforms and reduce Russian influence – but have so far failed.
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.
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-sponsored hijacking … state-sponsored hijacking.”
Passengers described Pratasevich’s shock when he realized the plane was going to Minsk.
“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 finally arrived in Vilnius.
Pratasevich was co-founder of the Nexta channel of the Telegram messaging app, which was instrumental in organizing the anti-Lukashenko protests. Almost 2 million Belarusians in the country of 9.3 million people followed the channel. 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.
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.
Associated Press editors Raf Casert and Samuel Petrequin reported this story to Brussels and PA writer Vladimir Isachenkov reported from Moscow. PA editors Liudas Dapkus in Vilnius, Lithuania, Sylvia Hui and Jill Lawless in London, David Koenig in Dallas, Alexandra Jaffe in Washington, and Geir Moulson in Berlin contributed to this report.