Belarusian authorities on Sunday forced a civilian jetliner to land in Minsk and arrested an opposition journalist who was on board, an act that some European leaders were comparing to a hijacking.
European leaders meeting in Brussels on Monday said they were considering wide-ranging sanctions against Belarus.
Mere minutes before the Ryanair flight was to exit Belarusian airspace and cross into Lithuania, its crew got an order from Belarus’s air traffic control to turn around because of possible explosives on board. A MiG-29 fighter jet scrambled to escort the Boeing to Minsk, though the plane’s destination of Vilnius was far closer.
The Belarusian opposition said the purported bomb scare was just a pretext for strongman President Alexander Lukashenko’s real reason for ordering the plane’s diversion: the arrest of Roman Protasevich, an opposition journalist on board.
Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said he wanted to discuss immediate sanctions at a previously scheduled meeting of European leaders in Brussels on Monday.
“Hijacking of a civilian plane is an unprecedented act of state terrorism. It cannot go unpunished,” he wrote on Twitter.
“The regime forced the landing (of the) Ryanair plane in Minsk to arrest journalist and activist Roman Protasevich,” opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya said on Twitter, adding that she is demanding his “immediate release” and calling on the International Civil Aviation Organization to take action.
The ICAO said in a statement on Twitter that it is “strongly concerned by the apparent forced landing of a Ryanair flight and its passengers, which could be in contravention of the Chicago Convention. We look forward to more information being officially confirmed by the countries and operators concerned.”
“This is unprecedented,” said a senior European diplomat, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the unfolding situation.
The diplomat said European policymakers would need to discuss whether it was still safe to fly over Belarusian airspace.
Flights in Northern and Eastern Europe often try to avoid Russian airspace – including the exclave of Kaliningrad on the Baltic Sea – which means that if Belarusian airspace is also a no-go, north-south flights in Europe could become quite circuitous.
While Belarus’s biggest ally, Russia, was silent on the incident, the Western condemnation was strong. Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda said on Twitter that the plane was “forcibly landed” and that the Belarusian “regime is behind the abhorrent action.”
Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda tweeted, “European Union leaders will discuss a state-sponsored terror act in Minsk tomorrow at the European Union Commission. My suggestions: airspace over Belorus shall be recognized unsafe, Belorus aircrafts shall not be accepted in European Union airports, immediate investigation by the International Civil Aviation Organization & serious sanctions against the regime.”
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said “this is a serious (and) dangerous incident which requires international investigation.” British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said that Britain is “coordinating with our allies. This outlandish action by Lukashenko will have serious implications.”
Julie Fisher, the U.S. ambassador to Belarus, said on Twitter that Lukashenko’s “regime today showed again its contempt for international community and its citizens.”
“Faking a bomb threat and sending MiG-29s to force @Ryanair to Minsk in order to arrest a @nexta journalist on politically motivated charges is dangerous and abhorrent,” she added.
Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab tweeted, “The UK is alarmed by reports of the arrest of @nexta_tv journalist Roman Protasevich & circumstances that led to his flight being forced to land in Minsk. We are coordinating with our allies. This outlandish action by Lukashenko will have serious implications.”
Ireland’s Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney said, “It is utterly unacceptable. This is an Irish Airline with EU citizens on board, forced to land in Minsk, while travelling between EU cities. A strong an united response from EU needed. EU inaction or indecision will be taken as weakness by Belarus.”
European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen said, “It is utterly unacceptable to force Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius to land in Minsk. ALL passengers must be able to continue their travel to Vilnius immediately and their safety ensured. Any violation of international air transport rules must bear consequences.”