The European Union is urging member nations to close their airspace and airports to all Belarusian airlines after Belarus forced a commercial jetliner to make an emergency landing Sunday in Minsk and arrested an opposition blogger critical of authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko.
A number of airlines, including Lufthansa, released statements earlier in the day stating they would not fly through Belarusian airspace.
The EU is also calling for an investigation into the incident and is planning to sanction Belarusian officials responsible for the aircraft’s diversion.
Many members of the Belarusian government are already under EU sanctions because of last year’s crackdown following the disputed August presidential election.
The EU, as well as the United States, called on Lukashenko’s government to immediately release Raman Pratasevich, a 26-year-old blogger who has been living in exile in Poland.
Pratasevich, a former editor of the influential Telegram channels Nexta and Nexta Live, was detained by police when Belarusian authorities searched the plane. The Minsk government said Lukashenko ordered his military to scramble a MiG-29 fighter to escort the plane to the Minsk airport.
In a video released on Belarusian state TV Monday, Pratasevich is seen “confessing” to charges of responsibility in civil disturbances.
“I can say that I have no health problems. â€¦ I continue cooperating with investigators and am confessing to having organized mass unrest in the city of Minsk,” he said.
But just before he and his girlfriend were led off a diverted plane by police, a trembling Pratasevich reportedly told a fellow passenger, “I’m facing the death penalty here.”
Ryanair Flight FR4978, originating in Athens, was diverted in Belarusian airspace about 10 kilometers from Vilnius, Lithuania â€” its planned destination â€” because of an alleged bomb threat.
On Monday, the airline called the incident “an act of aviation piracy” and said it is cooperating with investigations being conducted by European Union safety and security agencies and NATO.
In Washington, White House press secretary Jen Psaki described the Belarus government’s role as “shocking” and said the United States is demanding an international probe of the incident. Belarus is a former Soviet republic with close ties to the Russian government.
“It constitutes a brazen affront to international peace and security by the regime,” Psaki said.
A United Nations spokesman said Secretary-General Antonio Guterres supports “a full, transparent and independent investigation into this disturbing incident.”
A total of 126 passengers left Athens on the flight but only 121 landed in Vilnius, in addition to the crew of six. Ryanair chief Michael O’Leary said he believed Belarusian security agents had been on the flight and had also disembarked in Minsk. That would seem to indicate the operation had effectively been coordinated with operatives on the ground in Greece.
The Minsk government has accused Pratasevich of terrorism and provoking riots after the Nexta channels became one of the main conduits for organizing last year’s anti-Lukashenko protests over election fraud.
Lukashenko won his sixth term in the August election, claiming 80% of the votes, although many in the country accused him of rigging the vote.
During the months of protests that followed, more than 34,000 people were arrested in Belarus, and thousands were brutally beaten.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Sunday the U.S. “strongly condemns the forced diversion of a flight between two EU member states and the subsequent removal and arrest of journalist Raman Pratasevich in Minsk. We demand his immediate release.
“This shocking act perpetrated by the Lukashenko regime endangered the lives of more than 120 passengers, including U.S. citizens,” Blinken said in his statement.
The U.S.-based Committee to Protect Journalists on Sunday said it was “shocked” by the incident, saying the Lukashenko government “has increasingly strangled the press in Belarus for the past year, detaining, fining and expelling journalists, and sentencing them to longer and longer prison terms.” The CPJ called for Pratasevich’s immediate release.
Pratasevich had been in Athens covering a visit by Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, a former Belarusian presidential candidate who has declared herself the country’s leader-in-exile because of the alleged widespread fraud during last year’s elections. She called on the International Civil Aviation Organization to investigate the Sunday incident and the diversion of the Ryanair jet.
She tweeted that Lukashenko’s “regime endangered the lives of passengers onboard the plane. From now â€” no one flying over Belarus â€” can be secure. International reaction needed!”