Belarus condemned for flight interception as EU weighs sanctions

EU leaders prepared to punish the Minsk regime for intercepting a Ryanair flight as the UK warned airlines to avoid Belarus airspace and banned the eastern European country’s national carrier from its airports.

The White House joined international condemnation of Sunday’s interception of the Ryanair flight and detention of Roman Protasevich, a leading opposition activist, and his partner Sofia Sapega.

“We are outraged,” said press secretary Jen Psaki, calling the flight diversion a brazen affront to international peace and security by the regime in Belarus.

“We demand an immediate, international, transparent and credible investigation of this incident,” she said, adding the US had directly conveyed its concerns to Russia as well as Belarus because of the two countries’ close relationship.

Ryanair branded the interception and rerouting of its flight from Athens to Vilnius an “act of aviation piracy” while several European airlines, including Latvia’s airBaltic and Scandinavia’s SAS, said they would stop using Belarusian air space.

Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky also instructed his government to ban all direct flights from Ukraine to Belarus and to prohibit any flights from Ukraine over its neighbour’s airspace. 

The UK, EU and US are exploring a range of possible sanctions, officials said, as UK foreign secretary Dominic Raab described Sunday’s forced landing and the detention of Protasevich as a “danger to civilian flights everywhere”.

On Monday evening, a pro-Lukashenko channel on messaging app Telegram published the first footage of Protasevich since his arrest. In the video, a disheveled Protasevich said he was in a jail in Minsk and claimed he was being treated well, despite bruises visible on his face. “I am also co-operating with the investigation and giving evidence of my guilt in organising mass disturbances,” he said. He faces 15 years in prison on these charges.

German chancellor Angela Merkel demanded the immediate release of Protasevich and Sapega. “We will demand this, and at the same time discuss what measures we can take against Belarus,” she said ahead of a meeting of EU leaders.

One EU idea being explored is to target the businesses interests of oligarchs that finance the Belarus regime, EU diplomats said. This would hurt Lukashenko and his allies while avoiding more sweeping economic sanctions that could harm ordinary Belarusians.

Other sanctions being considered by the EU’s 27 leaders include banning Belavia, the national airline, from EU airports; declaring the country’s airspace unsafe; and extending travel bans and asset freezes already imposed on dozens of officials in Minsk over rights abuses, according to EU diplomats.

Franak Viacorka, an aide to Belarus’s exiled opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, called for a no-fly zone to be imposed over Belarus. He also urged further sanctions on Belarus’s lucrative oil and potash sectors, crucial providers of revenue for Lukashenko’s 27-year-old regime.

The International Civil Aviation Organization, the UN body that agrees standards for civil aviation, has called an urgent meeting over the incident for this Thursday. 

Relations between Brussels and Minsk have deteriorated after last year’s presidential polls and the crackdown that followed. In December, European leaders imposed a new wave of sanctions on Lukashenko and other regime members.

Belarus is still part of the “Eastern Partnership” that the EU has with six states close to Russia’s border, enjoying privileges such as a visa facilitation agreement launched last year. The EU had once hoped to draw Minsk from the Kremlin’s orbit but that ambition appears doomed after Sunday’s events.

Psaki said Washington was coordinating with bilateral partners and multilateral groups including Nato, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and the UN.

Belarus’s foreign ministry branded the criticism of its action as “baseless”, while Russia called the EU response “shocking”.

Belarusian media said Lukashenko personally gave the order to divert Ryanair flight FR4978. It was carrying 171 passengers from Greece to Lithuania on Sunday but abruptly rerouted to the Belarusian capital shortly before it was about to leave the country’s airspace.

Belarusian officials said a MiG-29 fighter jet had been scrambled to escort the airliner to Minsk following a bomb scare, which they later conceded was “false”.

Merkel said Belarus’ explanations for the landing of the aircraft were “completely implausible”.

Belarus foreign spokesman Anatoly Glaz said its aviation authorities had acted “in complete accordance with established international rules”. Glaz accused EU countries of “rushing to make openly warlike statements”.

Russia’s foreign ministry echoed Belarus’s attack on western countries’ responses to the incident, accusing them of hypocrisy.

“It is shocking that the west calls the incident in the airspace of Belarus ‘shocking’,” Maria Zakharova, the ministry’s spokeswoman, wrote in a post on her Facebook page, citing other examples of planes being diverted by western nations to arrest wanted people.

Additional reporting by Erika Solomon in Berlin, Philip Georgiadis in London, Katrina Manson in Washington, Richard Milne in Oslo, Roman Olearchyk in Kyiv and Max Seddon in Moscow

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