Pressure mounts on EU to take strong action against Belarus over airliner ‘hijack’ and journalist’s detention

EU leaders set to discuss response to ‘state-sponsored terror act’ at summit in Brussels.

By Brian Johnson

Brian Johnson is Managing Editor of The Parliament Magazine

24 May 2021

Reaction to the forced diversion to Minsk, of a Ryanair flight to Lithuania on Sunday and the subsequent detention of opposition journalist Roman Pratasevich, who was a passenger on the airliner, was swift, with EU leaders warning of ‘consequences’ and additional ‘sanctions’ against Belarus.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen called Minsk’s actions, “outrageous and illegal” and warned that the, “behaviour of the regime in Belarus will have consequences. Those responsible for the Ryanair hijacking must be sanctioned. Journalist Roman Pratasevich must be released immediately.”

Lithuanian President Gitanas Nausėda called the forced diversion a “state-sponsored terror act” and called on EU leaders meeting in Brussels today and Tuesday to create a no-flight zone over Belarus and to close EU air space and airports to all flights originating from the country.

Nausėda also called for immediate investigation by the UN’s International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) and for “serious sanctions” against President Alexander Lukashenko’s regime.

EU foreign policy Chief Josep Borrell also called for an international probe saying in a statement on Monday, that "An international investigation into this incident must be carried out to ascertain any breach of international aviation rules".

“The EU will consider the consequences of this action, including taking measures against those responsible.”

"An international investigation into this incident must be carried out to ascertain any breach of international aviation rules. The EU will consider the consequences of this action, including taking measures against those responsible” EU foreign policy Chief Josep Borrell

The Ryanair flight, en route to Lithuania from Greece, was passing through Belarusian airspace, when it was forced by the country’s air traffic authorities to detour to Minsk, because of an alleged bomb scare, despite the fact that Vilnius airport was closer.

The airliner was ‘escorted’ to Minsk by a Belarusian MiG-29 fighter jet. Upon landing, Pratasevich, who faces criminal charges in Belarus, including inciting hatred against the government, and his girlfriend were detained.

Several other passengers, thought to be Belarusian security services operatives, also left the flight.

After being grounded for several hours in Minsk the plane was allowed to take off and finish its flight to Vilnius.

Commenting on Irish radio station Newstalk, Ryanair boss Michael O'Leary called the flight’s forced diversion, “A case of state-sponsored hijacking - state-sponsored piracy,"

O'Leary added, "It appears the intent of the authorities was to remove a journalist and his travelling companion. We believe there were some KGB agents offloaded at the airport as well”.

“Lukashenka hijacked an EU-owned, EU-registered plane full of EU citizens travelling between EU capitals in order to seize an EU-recognised political refugee. If we don't make this tin-horned dictator regret it, what hope is there of restraining bigger scoundrels?” Polish MEP Radosław Sikorski

The incident is expected to dominate the start of the planned two-day summit of EU leaders gathering in Brussels on Monday. Ahead of the meeting, European Council President Charles Michel also called for An ICAO investigation.

The leader of the European Parliament’s largest political grouping, Manfred Weber called the incident a “Hijacking” and “an unforgivable act of state terrorism” and called on EU leaders “to react immediately and firmly” and consider additional sanctions to Lukashenko and his regime.

One of Weber’s EPP Group compatriots, Polish MEP Radosław Sikorski, said “Lukashenka hijacked an EU-owned, EU-registered plane full of EU citizens travelling between EU capitals in order to seize an EU-recognised political refugee. “

“If we don't make this tin-horned dictator regret it, what hope is there of restraining bigger scoundrels?”

Greens deputy Terry Reintke tweeted that her Greens/EFA Group had “requested a plenary debate with resolution in the European Parliament for a Council and Commission statement on State terrorism orchestrated by Lukashenko regime against the EU Citizens and Companies”

The German MEP added, “Honestly, the time for just being “very concerned” is over. If the EU accepts something like this, all rhetoric on press freedom, protection of human rights and solidarity with Belarus are empty, ridiculous words. [EU leaders meeting in Brussels] must react - determined and united.”

“Honestly, the time for just being “very concerned” is over. If the EU accepts something like this, all rhetoric on press freedom, protection of human rights and solidarity with Belarus are empty, ridiculous words. [EU leaders meeting in Brussels] must react - determined and united” Greens/EFA MEP Terry Reintke

Reintke’s concerns were shared by Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney who warned EU leaders, “If there's indecision or weakness shown by the EU here, it'll reinforce in the minds of the decision makers in Belarus that they've done the right thing here"

“It is utterly unacceptable. This is an Irish Airline with EU citizens on board, forced to land in Minsk, while travelling between EU cities. A strong and united response from the EU needed. EU inaction or indecision will be taken as weakness by Belarus.”

Maltese deputy David Casa tweeted out details of a letter signed by several members of the European Parliament’s Media Working Group calling on EU leaders to suspend flights through Belarusian airspace, suspend all air connections between EU and Belarus, and to start a full inquiry on whether the incident broached international aviation rules.

“What happened yesterday is outrageous. Today’s European Council should take concrete action against the illegitimate regime of Alexander Lukashenko, “said Casa.

“What we saw yesterday is state-sponsored terrorism: a hijack of a flight between an EU capital to another EU capital, so that a journalist and his partner are arrested. Both should be released from Belarus as soon as possible”.

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