‘State terrorism’ in Belarus suddenly tops the agenda as EU leaders meet – EURACTIV.com


Belarus forced an airliner carrying a wanted opposition activist to divert and land in its capital, causing a furious outcry from world leaders who described it as an “act of state terrorism “before the EU summit on Monday 24 May which should toughen sanctions. on Minsk.

Dissident journalist Roman Protasevich was arrested on Sunday after Ryanair flight FR4978 was pulled from its Athens-Vilnius route and – accompanied by a Belarusian fighter jet – diverted to the capital, state television reported.

Passengers described seeing the 26-year-old, who lived in Poland, looking nervous as the flight diverted to Minsk.

“He just turned to the people and said he risked the death penalty,” Monika Simkiene, 40, Lithuanian, told AFP in Vilnius after landing – without Protasevich – a few hours later late.

Edvinas Dimsa, 37, said: “He wasn’t screaming, but it was clear he was very scared. It seemed if the window had been opened he would have jumped out.

The incident comes as the European Union prepares to discuss strengthening its existing sanctions against Belarus, imposed following the crackdown by President Alexander Lukashenko’s regime against opposition protesters, during a summit scheduled for Monday.

“The regime’s outrageous and illegal behavior in Belarus will have consequences,” tweeted EU chief Ursula von der Leyen, calling for Protasevich’s release, and adding that those responsible “must be punished”.

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki denounced Belarus’ actions as “an act of state terrorism”, while French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian called for a “strong and united response” from the EU.

Lithuania and Latvia demanded that international flights do not use Belarusian airspace.

The International Civil Aviation Organization – the United Nations civil aviation agency – said the forced landing “may be in violation of the Chicago Convention,” which protects airspace sovereignty nations.

Minsk Airport issued a statement earlier claiming the plane was to land there urgently at 12:15 GMT following a bomb threat.

“The plane was checked, no bombs were found and all the passengers were sent for another security search,” Nexta, a Belarusian opposition channel told the Telegram messaging app, told Protasevich had previously edited.

Lukashenko’s press service said on its own Telegram channel that the president gave the order to hijack the flight and ordered a MiG-29 fighter jet to accompany the plane.

It comes as Belarusian authorities step up their crackdown on the opposition following the historic protests that hit the former Soviet country after last year’s disputed presidential election.

“Absolutely unacceptable”

The United States “strongly condemned” the arrest, with Secretary of State Antony Blinken calling for Protasevich’s release.

“This shocking act perpetrated by the Lukashenka regime endangered the lives of more than 120 passengers, including US citizens,” he said in a statement, using an alternative spelling of the Belarusian leader’s name.

He added on Twitter: “We are demanding an international investigation and we are coordinating with our partners on the next steps. “

European leaders reacted with fury. In Athens, Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis tweeted: “The forced landing of a commercial plane to arrest a journalist is an unprecedented and shocking act. The statement was retweeted by US Ambassador to Athens Geoffrey R. Pyatt.

Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda called Belarus’ actions “odious” and prosecutors said they had opened a criminal investigation into the hijacking of a plane.

The Irish government, where Ryanair is headquartered, called the incident “absolutely unacceptable”, while NATO called it “dangerous” and demanded an international investigation.

Since the disputed elections last August, Belarusians have taken to the streets to demand the resignation of Lukashenko, who has reigned for more than two decades.

Protasevich and Nexta founder Stepan Putilo, 22, were added to Belarus’ list of “persons involved in terrorist activities” last year.

The two – both now based in Poland – have been charged with causing mass unrest, an offense punishable by up to 15 years in prison.

Belarus also called Nexta Telegram channels and its logo “extremist” and ordered their blocking.

With nearly two million Telegram subscribers, Nexta Live and its sister channel Nexta are leading opposition channels and have helped mobilize protesters.

“It is absolutely obvious that this is a secret service operation to capture the plane in order to detain activist and blogger Roman Protasevich,” exiled opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya told Telegram.

The opposition claims Tsikhanouskaya, who fled to neighboring Lithuania after the elections, was the real winner in last year’s presidential vote.

KGB involved?

A member of the Nexta team, Tadeusz Giczan, tweeted that representatives of the Belarusian security agency were on board Protasevich’s flight.

“Then, when the plane entered Belarusian airspace, KGB officers started a brawl with the Ryanair crew, insisting that there was an IED on board,” he said. -he declares.

Lithuanian state-owned Airports spokeswoman Lina Beisine told AFP that Minsk airport said the flight had been rerouted “due to a conflict between a crew member and passengers “.

In a statement – which does not mention Protasevich – Ryanair said the flight crew had been told by Belarusian air traffic control of “a potential threat to safety on board” and had been ordered to divert to Minsk, the “nearest” airport.

The EU and the United States have sanctioned Lukashenko and dozens of officials and businessmen linked to his regime with asset freezes and visa bans.


Thelma J. Longworth

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