Several European countries have barred airlines from Belarusian airspace after the forced diversion of a commercial flight, which has been denounced as piracy, hijacking and terrorism.
The United Kingdom went further, suspending permits for the country’s flag carrier, Belavia, to continue to operate.
Western outrage grew and the European Union threatened further sanctions on Monday over the forced diversion, apparently ordered by Belarus’s authoritarian president, Alexander Lukashenko, in order to arrest opposition journalist Raman Pratasevich.
Ryanair said Belarusian flight controllers told the crew there was a bomb threat against the plane as it was crossing through the country’s airspace on Sunday and ordered it to land in the capital of Minsk.
A Belarusian MiG-29 fighter jet was scrambled to escort the plane — in a brazen show of force by President Alexander Lukashenko, who has ruled with an iron fist for over a quarter-century.
UK Transport Secretary Grant Shapps on Monday afternoon (early Tuesday AEST) announced that he’d asked the UK Civil Aviation Authority to request airlines avoid the country’s airspace and suspended Belavia’s operating permit.
“Following the UK Government’s decision, the UK Civil Aviation Authority has suspended all foreign carrier permits held by Belarusian air carriers until further notice,” UK CAA said in a statement.
“This suspension applies to both scheduled operators, including the Belarusian airline Belavia, as well as chartered air carriers.
“The Civil Aviation Authority has also issued a notice to all UK registered airlines requesting that they avoid overflight of any territory of the Republic of Belarus”.
Mr Pratasevich, sometimes spelled Protasevich, is an activist and journalist who ran a popular messaging app channel that played a key role in helping organise massive protests against the authoritarian leader. He and his Russian girlfriend were led off the plane shortly after landing. The plane, which began its journey in Athens, Greece, was eventually allowed to continue on to Vilnius, Lithuania.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken called the diversion “shocking,” but EU leaders were particularly forceful in their condemnation of the move against the plane, which was flying between two of the bloc’s member nations and was being operated by an airline based in Ireland, also a member.
Irish Prime Minister Micheal Martin told broadcaster RTE the diversion “certainly was a state-sponsored coercive act.”
“It reflects growing authoritarianism across the world,” Martin said. “These authoritarian figures taking pre-meditated decisions of this kind. … We have to respond very strong to it.”
EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said it was “yet another blatant attempt by the Belarusian authorities to silence all opposition voices.”
EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen earlier said it amounted to a “hijacking,” while Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda called it a “state-sponsored terror act.”
As much as EU leaders have tried to bring Belarus closer, the bloc has failed so far. On Monday, hours ahead of a previously planned summit, some EU leaders were threatening more sanctions — from scrapping landing rights in the bloc for Belarus’ national airline to exclusions from sporting events.
The US and the EU already have imposed sanctions on top Belarusian officials amid months of protests, which were triggered by Lukashenko’s reelection to a sixth presidential term in an August vote that the opposition rejected as rigged. More than 34,000 people have been arrested in Belarus since then, and thousands were brutally beaten.
The Belarusian Foreign Ministry on Monday bristled at what it described as “belligerent” EU statements, insisting that the country’s authorities acted “in full conformity with international rules.”
Flight tracker sites indicated the plane was about 10 kilometres from the Lithuanian border when it was diverted. There have been conflicting reports of what exactly happened.
The press service of Mr Lukashenko said the President himself ordered that a fighter jet accompany the plane after he was informed of the bomb threat. Deputy air force commander Andrei Gurtsevich told Belarusian state TV the plane’s crew made the decision to land in Minsk, adding that the fighter jet was sent to “provide help to the civilian aircraft to ensure a safe landing.”
But Ryanair said in a statement that Belarusian air traffic control instructed the plane to divert to the capital. The plane was searched, and no bomb was found.
Ryanair’s CEO Michael O’Leary described the move as “a case of state-sponsored hijacking … state-sponsored piracy.”
“It’s very frightening for the crew, for the passengers who were held under armed guard, had their bags searched,” he told the Irish radio station Newstalk.
In an apparent reference to the Belarusian security agency that still goes under its Soviet-era name KGB, Mr O’Leary said he believes “some KGB agents offloaded from the aircraft” in Minsk.
Passengers described Mr Pratasevich’s shock when he realised that the plane was going to land in Minsk.
“I saw this Belarusian guy with girlfriend sitting right behind us. He freaked out when the pilot said the plane is diverted to Minsk. He said there’s death penalty awaiting him there,” passenger Marius Rutkauskas said after the plane finally arrived in Vilnius.
“We sat for an hour after the landing. Then they started releasing passengers and took those two. We did not see them again.”
Mr Pratasevich was a co-founder of the Telegram messaging app’s Nexta channel, which played a prominent role in helping organise major protests against Lukashenko.
The Belarusian authorities have designated it as extremist and levelled charges of inciting riots against MrPratasevich, who could face 15 years in prison if convicted.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov wouldn’t say if the Belarusian authorities had contacted Russia about the episode. The two neighbours have close political, economic and military ties, and Lukashenko has relied on Moscow’s support amid Western sanctions.
The chairs of the parliamentary foreign affairs committees of Ireland, UK, US, Poland, Germany, Czechia, Latvia, Lithuania joined together on Sunday night to call for sanctions and Mr Pratasevich’s immediate release.
The International Civil Aviation Organisation called an urgent meeting on Monday to discuss the forced landing