Brussels agreed to ramp up sanctions against Belarus and ban its state airline from EU airports after the Minsk regime triggered global uproar by intercepting a Ryanair flight carrying an opposition activist.
European leaders agreed to “targeted” economic measures that are expected to be aimed at companies and oligarchs accused of financing president Alexander Lukashenko’s 27-year rule.
At a meeting in Brussels on Monday night, the 27-member bloc called for the immediate release of Roman Protasevich, the leading opposition activist, and his partner, Sofia Sapega, who were on the Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius and detained in Minsk on Sunday after authorities forced the aircraft to land.
The Belarus regime’s interception of the flight has triggered condemnation from western countries and fears that other authoritarian regimes may try to weaponise the skies. The Belarusian foreign ministry branded the criticism as “baseless”, while Russia called the EU response “shocking”.
A pro-Lukashenko channel on the messaging app Telegram published the first footage of Protasevich since his arrest as EU leaders were meeting. The activist, appearing disheveled, said he was in a jail in Minsk and claimed he was being treated well, despite the bruises visible on his face.
“I am also co-operating with the investigation and giving evidence of my guilt in organising mass disturbances,” he said. He faces 15 years in prison on the charges.
The EU heads of state and government called for the sanctions to be prepared “without delay”. Targeting oligarchs would hurt Lukashenko and his allies while avoiding more sweeping sanctions that could harm ordinary Belarusians, diplomats argued.
The leaders also urged EU airlines to stop flying over Belarus, while its airlines are to be barred from the bloc’s airspace and airports. EU countries also called on the International Civil Aviation Organization to launch an urgent investigation.
The UN body, which agrees standards for civil aviation, has called a meeting for this Thursday.
Speaking at a press conference in the early hours of the morning, Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission president, said Belarus had used its control of its airspace to perpetrate a “state hijacking”.
“This is an attack on democracy; this is an attack on freedom of expression; and this is an attack on European sovereignty. This outrageous behaviour needs a strong answer,” she added.
In a statement on Monday night, Joe Biden praised the action taken by Brussels and hinted that Washington would follow suit. “I welcome the news that the EU has called for targeted economic sanctions and other measures, and have asked my team to develop appropriate options to hold accountable those responsible, in close co-ordination with the EU, other allies and partners and international organisations,” the US president said.
Earlier in the day White House press secretary Jen Psaki joined the international condemnation and called the flight diversion a brazen affront to global peace and security by the Belarus regime.
“We demand an immediate, international, transparent and credible investigation,” she said, adding the US had directly conveyed its concerns to Russia as well as Belarus because of their close relationship.
Ryanair branded the affair an “act of aviation piracy”. Several European airlines, including Latvia’s airBaltic and Scandinavia’s SAS, said they would stop using Belarusian air space even before the EU decision.
Dominic Raab, Britain’s foreign secretary, described the forced landing and the detentions as a “danger to civilian flights everywhere”, as the UK joined the EU in barring Belarus’s airline and warning carriers to avoid its airspace.
Franak Viacorka, an aide to Belarus’s exiled opposition leader, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, urged further sanctions on lucrative oil and potash sectors, crucial providers of revenue for Lukashenko’s regime.
Relations between Brussels and Minsk have deteriorated after last year’s presidential polls, widely viewed as rigged in favour of Lukashenko, and the ensuing crackdown on opposition, which forced many close to Tsikhanouskaya to flee to Vilnius in neighbouring Lithuania. In December European leaders imposed new sanctions on Lukashenko and other regime members.
Belarus is still part of the “Eastern Partnership” that the EU has with six states close to Russia’s border, enjoying privileges such as a visa facilitation agreement launched last year. The EU had once hoped to draw Minsk from the Kremlin’s orbit but that ambition appears doomed after Sunday’s events.
Belarusian media said Lukashenko personally gave the order to divert Ryanair flight FR4978. It was carrying 171 passengers and was abruptly rerouted to the Belarusian capital shortly before it was about to leave the country’s airspace.
Belarusian officials said a MiG-29 fighter jet had been scrambled to escort the airliner to Minsk following a bomb scare, which they later conceded was “false”.
Merkel said Belarus’s explanations for the landing of the aircraft were “completely implausible”.
Anatoly Glaz, the Belarus foreign spokesman, said its aviation authorities had acted “in complete accordance with established international rules”. Glaz accused EU countries of “rushing to make openly warlike statements”.
Russia’s foreign ministry echoed the Belarusian attack on western countries’ responses to the incident, accusing them of hypocrisy.
“It is shocking that the west calls the incident in the airspace of Belarus ‘shocking’,” Maria Zakharova, the ministry’s spokeswoman, wrote in a post on her Facebook page, citing other examples of planes being diverted by western nations to arrest wanted people.
Additional reporting by Jasmine Cameron-Chileshe and Philip Georgiadis in London, Erika Solomon in Berlin, Katrina Manson and James Politi in Washington, Richard Milne in Oslo, Roman Olearchyk in Kyiv and Max Seddon in Moscow