Angry European Union leaders are due to consider on Monday a joint response to the diversion of Belarus by plane traveling between EU member states to arrest a prominent Belarusian opposition journalist.
BRUSSELS – Angry leaders of the European Union were supposed to consider a joint response to the diversion of Belarus by a plane traveling between EU member states on Monday in order to arrest a prominent Belarusian opposition journalist.
Raman Pratasevich, who ran a popular messaging app that played a key role in helping organize mass protests against Belarus’s authoritarian president, was on a Ryanair flight from Athens, Greece, to Vilnius, Lithuania, when diverted to the Belarusian capital, Minsk. flew over Belarus. Belarusian flight controllers warned the plane’s crew of an alleged bomb threat and ordered it to land in Minsk, and the Belarusian fighter plane was accompanied by a Ryanair plane.
Shortly after landing, 26-year-old Pratasevich and his Russian girlfriend were taken off the plane. The jet was eventually allowed to continue the flight and landed in Vilnius hours after the deadline.
Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda on Sunday called the incident a “state-sponsored act of terrorism” and proposed a ban on Belarusian planes from European Union airports and “serious sanctions” against the Belarusian government.
The 27 EU leaders open a two-day summit later Monday, and the issue was immediately put on the top of the agenda amid a joint condemnation of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko.
EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell called it “another obvious attempt by the Belarusian authorities to silence all opposition votes”. He called the diversion of the plane an “inadmissible step”, noting the further deterioration of relations between the two sides.
Belarus’s foreign ministry rushed on Monday to what it described as “belligerent” EU statements, insisting the country’s authorities acted “in full compliance with international rules”.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken called the incident “shocking” and accused the Belarusian government of endangering the lives of those on the plane, including some Americans. He called for the release of Pratasevich and for a panel of the International Civil Aviation Organization to consider the incident.
Flight tracking sites showed that the plane was diverted about 10 kilometers (six miles) from the Lithuanian border.
“I saw this Belarusian guy with a girl sitting right behind us. He went crazy when the pilot said that the plane was redirected to Minsk. He said he was facing the death penalty there, ”said passenger Marius Rutkauskas after the plane finally arrived in Vilnius. “We sat for an hour after landing. Then they started releasing the passengers and took the two away. We never saw them again. ”
Pratasevich was a co-founder of the Nexta Telegram messaging application channel, which played a prominent role in helping organize large-scale protests against Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko. Belarusian authorities have declared him extremist and accused him of inciting riots against Pratasevic, who could be sentenced to 15 years in prison if convicted.
Dapkus reported from Lithuania in Vilnius. Vladimir Isachenkov of Moscow contributed to this report.