EU summons Belarus envoy over 'coercive' plane landing
Issued on: Modified:
The European Union has summoned the Belarusian ambassador to condemn the "inadmissible" forced diversion of a Ryanair flight heading to Lithuania and detention of a critical journalist.
"Ambassador (Aleksandr) Mikhnevich was informed of the firm condemnation by the EU institutions and EU member states of the coercive act by which the Belarusian authorities have jeopardised the safety of passengers and crew," an EU statement said.
Officials "conveyed the EU's position that the outrageous action by Belarusian authorities constitute another blatant attempt to silence all opposition voices in the country and demanded the immediate release" of Roman Protasevich, the statement said.
Belgium's foreign ministry said it had also summoned Mikhnevich – who serves as envoy to both the EU and Belgium – over the "unjustified and unacceptable acts".
The moves came hours before a summit of EU leaders in Brussels. Their meeting had been scheduled to focus on climate change. Instead the topic was switched to possible sanctions following the forced landing of the Ryanair plane in Minsk on Sunday.
France's Foreign Minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, called for a firm and united response from the EU.
Le Drian tweeted that the action was unacceptable
Le détournement par les autorités biélorusses d’un vol de @Ryanair est inacceptable. Une réponse ferme et unie des Européens est indispensable. Tous les passagers de ce vol, dont les opposants biélorusses éventuels, doivent être autorisés sans délai à quitter la #Biélorussie.— Jean-Yves Le Drian (@JY_LeDrian) May 23, 2021
The president of Lithuania, Gitanas Nauseda, urged the EU to impose fresh economic sanctions on Belarus. There were also calls for flights to or over Belarus to be banned.
The EU described the incident as a hijacking. The EU Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, added: "The outrageous and illegal behaviour ... will have consequences."
The US state department called the forced diversion a shocking act.
The United Nations added its voice to the condemnation. "The UN chief supports calls for a full, transparent and independent investigation into this disturbing incident and urges all relevant actors to cooperate with such an inquiry,” said Stéphane Dujarric, the spokesperson for the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.
While the Vilnius-bound flight was in Belarusian airspace, authorities, who claimed there was a bomb on board, scrambled a fighter jet to force the plane to divert to Minsk.
After touchdown, Protasevich was arrested.
Before he was escorted from the plane, AFP reported that Protasevich told fellow passengers he would face the death penalty.
State media in Belarus said President Alexander Lukashenko had personally given the order for the move following the bomb alert, which turned out to be false.
The plane then went on to land in Vilnius more than six hours after its scheduled arrival.
Since winning a disputed election last August, Lukashenko, has cracked down on dissenting voices.
Existing EU sanctions
Lukashenko and dozens of Belarusian officials are under EU sanctions including travel bans and asset freezes which were imposed in response to the repression of opponents.
Protasevich is a former editor of Nexta, a media operation with a Telegram channel.
He left Belarus in 2019 to live in exile in Lithuania from where he covered the events of the 2020 presidential election.
He was charged with terrorism and inciting riots.
Tens of thousands of protesters thronged the capital Minsk for months last year, furious at Lukashenko's declaration of victory, in a vote widely regarded as rigged.
Western leaders have backed Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the opposition leader. She claimed victory in the election before she was forced to leave for Lithuania.
Daily newsletterReceive essential international news every morningSubscribe