The US joined the EU Commission in condemning the forced landing of a Vilnius-bound Ryanair flight in Belarus, reportedly over a bomb threat, which resulted in the arrest of the editor of an opposition Telegram channel.
In a statement on Sunday, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken demanded an international investigation into the diversion of a Ryanair flight that made an emergency landing in Minsk shortly before leaving Belarusian airspace due to reports of a bomb threat.
After the plane landed, the exiled editor of Telegram channel Belamova, Roman Protasevich, who was on board, was arrested by the Belarusian authorities. Protasevich, who previously worked as editor-in-chief of Polish-based opposition Telegram channel NEXTA Live, is wanted in Belarus on charges of inciting mass unrest, social enmity and discord. The accusations stem from mass anti-government protests that rocked Belarus in the wake of the August presidential election, which were extensively covered by Warsaw-based NEXTA.
NEXTA advocated for stronger anti-government action, сourting controversy for sharing unverified information that later proved to be fake. NEXTA has been designated an extremist organization in Belarus on par with Belamova, which was set up by popular blogger and US government-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) consultant Igor Losik last year.
Blinken suggested that the diversion of the plane was “based on false pretenses,” demanding Protasevich’s “immediate release.”
“This shocking act perpetrated by the Lukashenka regime endangered the lives of more than 120 passengers, including U.S. citizens,” the statement read.
Senator Bob Menendez (D-New Jersey), chairman of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, joined in the condemnation, calling for more sanctions to be imposed on Belarus after the incident.
“Enough is enough. The US and EU must significantly expand sanctions on Lukashenka’s dictatorship,” he said.
The remarks by the US politicians echoed those of European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, who referred to the emergency landing as a “hijacking.”
“The outrageous and illegal behaviour of the regime in Belarus will have consequences,” she tweeted, hinting at possible sanctions for those responsible for the plane’s emergency stop.
Several European countries, including Belgium, Germany, Cyprus, Ireland, Poland, the Czech Republic, and Lithuania, where former Belarusian presidential candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who declared herself the legitimate leader of Belarus, lives in exile, expressed similar concerns over the Ryanair emergency landing and the arrest of Protasevich.
Belgian PM Alexander De Croo called the incident “unacceptable” and called for EU-wide sanctions on Belarus, including banning national carrier Belavia from landing in EU airports. Lithuanian President Gitanas Nausėda backed the proposal to bar Belarusian aircrafts from landing in the EU, suggesting further “serious sanctions against the regime” for what he called “a state-sponsored terror act.” Poland summoned the chargé d’affaires of Belarus to express its “firm protest” against the emergency landing, noting that the jet is owned by a company registered in Poland.
Adding fuel to the fire, there were reports carried by a Telegram channel considered to be close to the Belarusian government that Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko personally ordered a MiG-29 fighter jet to escort the plane to the Minsk airport. In its statement, Ryanair made no mention of the reported escort, noting only that “the aircraft landed safely” and that “security checks were completed by local authorities” after the passengers disembarked. The company said the decision to divert to the Minsk airport was made after Belarusian air traffic control (ATC) notified the crew of “a potential security threat on board.”