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Belarus put on notice of sanctions over ‘hijack’ of Ryanair flight

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Belarus put on notice of sanctions over ‘hijack’ of Ryanair flight

The EU and Britain have put Belarus on notice of sanctions and punitive measures against its national airline as European flights over the country’s airspace were suspended in response to the detention of a dissident on a “hijacked” Ryanair flight.

Attention was also focusing on Russia’s role in the forced landing of flight FR4978 in Minsk as the UK’s foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, told the House of Commons it was unlikely to have been done without Kremlin approval.

Raab described the “reckless and dangerous” arrest of opposition blogger Roman Protasevich and his Russian girlfriend, Sofia Sapega as “a shocking assault on civil aviation and an assault on international law” as the government announced the suspension of the operating permit of Belavia, the country’s national airline.

In a video released on Monday evening, Protasevich denied reports that he had suffered health problems since his arrest and said that he was confessing to inciting mass riots, a charge that carries a maximum prison sentence of 15 years. The video, which appeared to have been filmed by police, was Protasevich’s first appearance since his arrest.

Protasevich, who was dressed in a black hoodie and seated next to a pack of cigarettes, said: “I can declare that I have no problems with my health, either with my heart or with any other organs. [Police] officers are treating me absolutely correctly and according to the law. I’m currently continuing to cooperate with the investigation and am giving a confession to the organisation of mass arrests in the city of Minsk.”

The opposition journalist appeared to have bruising above his right eye. He has not previously said he planned to confess to the charges against him, and several journalists who know him have said they believe he is under duress.

Sunday’s incident was described by European Council president Charles Michel as an “international scandal” that put “the lives of Europeans at risk”, as he arrived to chair a summit of the EU’s 27 heads of state and government on Monday evening.

Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel, said the actions of the Belarus authorities were “without precedent”, describing attempts by Alexander Lukashenko’s regime to explain away the forced landing as a response to a Hamas bomb threat as “totally uncredible.”

Roman Protasevich in 2017
Roman Protasevich, pictured in 2017, is reported to have been hospitalised in a critical state. Photograph: Reuters

The European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, tweeted: “We will not leave this unanswered. Leaders will discuss options for additional sanctions.”

She said the sanctions would cover individuals involved in the hijacking, businesses that finance the Belarus regime and the aviation sector, but gave no further details.

“We will keep pressure on the regime until it respects the freedom of opinion and of the media. Roman Pratasevich must be released immediately,” she said.

As well as agreeing on sanctions to add to those imposed on nearly 60 Belarusian officials, including Lukashenko and his son Victor, the EU’s heads of state and government are expected to call on EU carriers to avoid Belarusian airspace and “to adopt the necessary measures to ban overflight of EU airspace by Belarusian airlines and prevent access to EU airports” in a major blow to the country’s national airline.

But as further details of the flight’s forced landing emerged on Monday, questions were being raised over the role of Russia – from where careful support has been offered to Lukashenko’s regime since Sunday.

Asked about possible Russian involvement, Raab told the Commons: “We don’t have any clear details on that and I’ll be careful on what I say at this point. But as he says it’s very difficult to believe that this kind of action could have been taken without at least the acquiescence of the authorities in Moscow, but as I say it’s unclear as yet.”

The US White House press secretary, Jen Psaki, said Joe Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, had “raised our strong concerns” about Belarus’s action with his Kremlin counterpart.

Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, said the case “should be assessed without any haste and hurry and based on all information available”. He pointed to past incidents of Austria grounding a flight with Bolivian president Evo Morales on board in 2013 and Ukraine grounding a flight in 2016 as his foreign ministry issued a statement describing the EU’s response as “shocking”.

Protasevich and Sapega were flying from Athens to Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, when the plane was diverted to Minsk minutes from leaving Belarusian airspace in what Ryanair later described as an “act of aviation piracy”.

Protasevich, a former editor of the influential Telegram channels Nexta and Nexta Live, one of the main independent Belarusian media groups, was detained by police after Lukashenko ordered his military to scramble a Mig-29 fighter to meet the plane.

Passengers onboard said Protasevich began handing his phone and other personal items to Sapega, a Russian citizen studying at the European Humanities University (EHU) in Lithuania, when he learned that the flight would be making an emergency landing.

“I’m facing the death penalty here,” a trembling Protasevich reportedly told a fellow passenger from the plane before he was led away by Belarusian police. The mass unrest charges against him carry a sentence of up to 15 years. His current whereabouts is not known.

According to colleagues, Protasevich had sent them messages claiming he was being followed by a man in the departure lounge in Athens he suspected was a Belarusian KGB agent. The man was said to have been behind him in the queue to board and to have tried to take a photo of his documents before asking Protasevich a “stupid question” in Russian and leaving.

EHU has said Sapega had also been detained by the Minsk investigative committee on “groundless and made-up conditions”. She was preparing to defend her master’s thesis in Vilnius, the university said.

Russia on Monday confirmed that it had made contact with Sapega. According to the BBC Russian service, she managed to write a text message to her mother with just one word: “Mama”.

Ryanair’s chief executive, Michael O’Leary, said he believed that agents of the Belarusian KGB were travelling on the plane.

O’Leary’s remarks were the first official confirmation of reports that four other passengers had disembarked in Minsk after the emergency landing, driving speculation that Protasevich was being shadowed by the security services before the plane was forced to land. O’Leary said he believed it was the first time such an incident had taken place with a European airline.

Arriving in Brussels, Ireland’s taoiseach Micheál Martin said the “forcing down” of the Ryanair plane had been “appalling reckless and unacceptable” and that he would encourage fellow leaders to deliver a “very firm and strong response”.

Belarus’s ambassadors across Europe, including in London, Berlin and Brussels, were summoned by their hosts on Monday for a dressing down over Sunday’s extraordinary events.

While relations between the EU and Belarus have deteriorated since Lukashenko cracked down on those protesting against what they believe was a rigged presidential election last August, the country remains part of the “Eastern Partnership” the EU has with six states close to Russia’s border designed to deepen relations.

Tensions in the region continued to escalate on Monday, however, as Minsk expelled the Latvian ambassador after officials in Riga raised a white-red-white flag in a central square in a show of solidarity with the Belarusian opposition. Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy also announced that the country would halt air traffic with Belarus.

Minsk has blamed the west for the escalating tensions, calling the accusations over the incident “hasty and openly belligerent”.

“The situation is being intentionally politicised, and there are baseless accusations and labelling,” the Belarusian foreign ministry said in a statement.

Published at Mon, 24 May 2021 19:42:19 +0000

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/may/24/belarus-put-on-notice-of-sanctions-over-hijack-of-ryanair-flight