The leaders of 27 European Union countries have called for a ban on Belarus-based airlines landing in the bloc and told EU-based carriers to avoid the country’s airspace, after the diversion of a Ryanair flight to Minsk on Sunday.
The plane was brought to the Belarusian capital, under the pretence of a bomb scare, in order to arrest a wanted activist on board, Roman Protasevich.
Meeting in Brussels on Monday, the European Council – heads of state or government of all EU members – issued a memo demanding the “immediate release” of Protasevich and his girlfriend, Sofia Sapega, a Russian citizen. It also called on the International Civil Aviation Organization to investigate Sunday’s incident, which it described as “unprecedented and unacceptable.”
In addition to urging further sanctions against Belarus, the council called on all EU-based carriers to “avoid overflight” of Belarus, and for member countries to ban Belarus-based carriers from flying over their territory or landing at their airports.
A number of EU-based airlines have already announced they would avoid Belarus, including the Scandinavian SAS, Poland’s LOT, Hungary’s Wizzair, and Germany’s Lufthansa. Ireland’s Ryanair has not yet done so, though its CEO Michael O’Leary called the Sunday incident a “state-sponsored hijacking” and “piracy.”
The Ryanair flight from Greece to Lithuania, with Protasevich and Sapega on board, made an emergency landing in Minsk due to a reported bomb threat – only for the duo to be taken into custody once on the ground.
Protasevich is wanted in Belarus on charges of inciting mass unrest in his former job as editor-in-chief of the Warsaw-based Telegram channel Nexta. He is currently employed by Belamova, an outlet founded by Igor Losik, a consultant for US state-run media RFE/RL. Both outlets are on the list of extremist organizations in Minsk, having worked with protesters who called last year’s presidential election stolen and advocated regime change in Belarus.
Offering a “carrot” to the “stick” of sanctions and the airspace ban, European Commission chair Ursula von der Leyen announced on Monday that a €3 billion EU economic and investment package will be “ready to go for Belarus, when it becomes democratic.” At present, Russian energy subsidies to Belarus are estimated to be worth more than €5 billion annually.
In addition to calling for the release of Protasevich and Sapega, the European Council expressed support for Latvia over the “unjustified” expulsion of its diplomats from Minsk. The Baltic country’s ambassador to Belarus was expelled on Monday in response to Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics and Mayor of Riga Martins Stakis taking down the official flag of Belarus from the Ice Hockey World Championships display and replacing it with the red-and-white banner used by the Belarusian opposition.