The United States and European governments accused Belarus of engaging in an act of state terrorism after it forced a commercial jetliner on Sunday to make an emergency landing in Minsk and arrested an opposition blogger critical of authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko.
The U.S. and the European Union called on Lukashenko’s government to immediately release Raman Pratasevich, a 26-year-old blogger who has been living in exile in Poland.
Ryanair Flight FR4978, originating in Athens, was diverted in Belarusian airspace about 10 kilometers from Vilnius, Lithuania — its planned destination — 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.”
Several airlines said Monday they would avoid Belarusian airspace because of the incident. Meanwhile, European officials said they are considering new sanctions against Belarus, including closing their airspace and ending landing rights for Belarusian flights.
"The reaction should be swift and be severe," Belgian Prime Minister Alexander de Croo told reporters ahead of talks among all 27 national EU leaders.
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.
“I’m facing the death penalty here,” a trembling Pratasevich reportedly told a fellow passenger before Belarusian police led him and his Russian girlfriend off the aircraft. A university in Vilnius identified her as one of its students, Sofia Sapega, 23, and demanded her release.
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, the U.S. and the EU imposed sanctions on top Belarusian officials. More than 34,000 people were arrested in Belarus, and thousands were brutally beaten.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Sunday that 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.
In a joint statement with his counterparts from seven European parliamentary panels, U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez denounced the forced landing as “an act of piracy.”
The statement called for a ban on all flights over Belarus, including to and from the country, and for NATO and EU states to impose sanctions on the country and suspend Belarus’s “ability to use Interpol.”
Irish Prime Minister Micheal Martin told broadcaster RTE the diversion "certainly was a state-sponsored coercive act,” a statement echoed by other European leaders.
The Belarusian Foreign Ministry on Monday rebuffed what it described as "belligerent" EU statements, insisting that the country's authorities acted "in full conformity with international rules."
The U.S.-based Committee to Protect Journalists 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 Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, 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 — no one flying over Belarus — can be secure. International reaction needed!”