Sunday

29th May 2022

Lukashenko to face EU sanctions after Ryanair 'hijacking'

  • The Ryanair flight was on its way from Athens to Vilnius (Photo: Linus Follert)

Belarus' "Ryanair hijacking must be sanctioned" and the opposition blogger it snatched must be freed, European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen has said.

Her unusually strident remarks came after Belarus president Aleksander Lukashenko shocked Europe on Sunday (23 May) by forcing a passenger flight from Athens to Vilnius carrying more than 140 people to make an emergency landing in Belarus instead.

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The Ryanair flight 4978 was also carrying a Belarusian opposition blogger Roman Protasevich, who was then snatched.

"I'm facing the death penalty here," Protasevich reportedly told a fellow passenger before police led him away, the BBC reported.

The Irish airline said Belarus authorities told it to land due to a "potential security threat on board".

"Ryanair has informed the responsible national and European security agencies, and we sincerely apologise to all affected passengers for this regrettable delay", it added.

Lukashenko's press service said he also scrambled a Mig-29 warplane.

Ryanair 4978 later flew on to Vilnius, where prime minister Ingrida Simonyte greeted the remaining passengers and said: "This is a completely unprecedented situation you have had to face".

Meanwhile, von der Leyen was just one of many Western voices who pledged a harsh reaction.

"This act of state terror and kidnapping is a threat to all those who travel in Europe and beyond. It cannot be allowed to stand," the US, Ireland, Germany, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Poland, and the Czech Republic also said in a statement.

"This shocking act perpetrated by the Lukashenka regime endangered the lives of ... passengers, including US citizens," US secretary of state Antony Blinken added.

"We are coordinating with our allies. This outlandish action by Lukashenko will have serious implications," British foreign secretary Dominic Raab said.

The Ryanair hijacking came on the eve of an EU summit on Monday, where leaders were due to discuss Russia relations.

The EU has already blacklisted over 60 Belarusian officials, including Lukashenko, over his crackdown on pro-democracy protesters.

But it has left untouched many pro-Lukashenko oligarchs and refrained from economic sanctions, for instance, on Belarus' petrol and fertiliser industries, until now.

The Ryanair incident recalls the air tragedy over Ukraine in 2014, when Russian forces shot down Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 over Ukraine.

And Latvia and Lithuania said Belarus airspace should be considered unsafe for the time being.

The incident also recalls revelations, earlier this year, that Lukashenko had planned to assassinate Belarusian émigrés in Germany and Ukraine.

"If aircraft can be forced to the ground … in order to punish the political opponents of tyrants, then journalists here in the UK, politicians anywhere in Europe will find it harder to speak out," Tom Tugendhat, the chair of the UK foreign affairs select committee, said on Sunday.

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