EU explores sanctions against Belarus after Ryanair flight ‘hijack’
EU leaders are considering a series of sanctions to punish the Belarusian regime of Alexander Lukashenko after what Brussels called the “hijacking” of a Ryanair flight from Greece to Lithuania to arrest a dissident on board.
Options to be explored by the 27 EU leaders include banning Belarus’ national carrier Belavia from landing at EU airports; declare the country’s airspace dangerous; and the extension of sanctions such as travel bans and asset freezes already imposed on dozens of officials in Minsk for violations of their rights, according to European diplomats.
The forced landing in Minsk and the subsequent detention of Roman Protasevich, former editor of Nexta, one of Belarus’ leading independent media groups, was “yet another blatant attempt by the Belarusian authorities to silence all voices in the opposition, ”said Josep Borrell, EU foreign policy chief.
He called for an “international investigation” to determine any breaches of international aviation rules. A French official said that an official request for an investigation had been made to the UN aviation agency.
Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, threatened “consequences” for “the scandalous and illegal behavior of the regime in Belarus”. “Those responsible for Ryanair the hijacking must be sanctioned, ”she tweeted. “Journalist Roman Protasevich must be released immediately.”
Ryanair called the hijacking of its plane an “act of air piracy”, with managing director Michael O’Leary saying it was awaiting instructions on whether to avoid Belarusian airspace in the future.
“It seems that the authorities’ intention was to fire a journalist and his traveling companion,” he said, adding that he understood that Belarusian KGB secret service agents might be on board, but without providing any proof.
The Belarusian Foreign Ministry said such accusations were “baseless” while Russia called the EU’s response “shocking”.
Relations between Brussels and Minsk have deteriorated after last year’s presidential elections and the crackdown that followed. In December, European leaders imposed a new wave of sanctions against Lukashenko and other members of the regime.
Belarus is still part of the “Eastern Partnership” the EU has concluded with six states close to the Russian border, enjoying privileges such as a visa facilitation agreement launched last year. The European bloc had once hoped to pull Minsk out of the Kremlin’s orbit, but Sunday’s events underscored just how abandoned that goal seems.
Franak Viacorka, an aide to Belarusian exiled opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, called for the imposition of a no-fly zone over Belarus. He also called for new sanctions against the lucrative oil and potash industries in Belarus, which provide crucial revenue for the Lukashenko regime which has ruled Belarus with an iron fist for 27 years.
Belarusian media said Lukashenko personally gave the order to hijack Ryanair flight FR4978, which carried 171 passengers from Athens to Vilnius on Sunday, before heading sharply to the Belarusian capital Minsk shortly before departing from it. Belarusian airspace.
Belarusian officials said a MiG-29 fighter jet was scrambled to escort the airliner to Minsk following a bomb threat, which they later recognized as “bogus.”
In a statement posted on the Belarusian Foreign Ministry’s website on Monday, spokesman Anatoly Glaz said his aviation authorities had acted “in full accordance with established international rules.” Glaz accused EU countries of “rushing to make openly warlike statements” and “deliberately politicizing the situation with baseless accusations and labels”.
The Russian Foreign Ministry, meanwhile, echoed Belarus ‘attack on Western countries’ responses to the incident, accusing them of hypocrisy.
“It is shocking that the West is calling the incident in Belarusian airspace ‘shocking’.” Maria Zakharova, the spokeswoman for the ministry, wrote in a post on her Facebook page, citing other examples of planes hijacked by Western countries to arrest wanted people.
Protasevich’s girlfriend Sofia Sapega, who was traveling with him, was also arrested when the plane landed, according to the European University of Humanities in Vilnius, where she was studying.
According to messages Protasevich sent to his colleagues on Sunday, he said he was followed by a man he suspected to be a Belarusian KGB agent while in the departure lounge in Athens.
Passengers on the flight told AFP that Protasevich began rummaging through his luggage and gave items to his girlfriend once it became clear the flight was going to land in Belarus.
“[He was] no shouting, but it was clear that he was very scared, ”Edvinas Dimsa, a passenger, told AFP. “It looked like if the window had been opened he would have jumped out.”
Additional reporting by Philip Georgiadis in London and Richard Milne in Oslo