The European Union on Monday took steps to punish Belarus for forcing a passenger jet to land, an action that sparked international outrage.
The EU called for all airlines based in the bloc to stop flying over Belarus and began the process of banning airlines from Belarus from flying over EU airspace or landing in its airports. Those moves effectively cripple the country’s air connections to Western Europe.
This all comes after Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko ordered a Ryanair airliner flying from Greece to Lithuania to land in Minsk so an opposition activist could be arrested.
We’re learning new details about what happened on Sunday. Ryanair’s CEO Michael O’Leary accused Belarus of “state-sponsored piracy” for forcing the jet to change course, so it could arrest Raman Pratasevich. He is wanted in Belarus on a variety of charges and was detained once the plane landed. Reports on the reasons given for diverting the plane vary. Belarus officials claimed there was a security threat on board, and even sent a MiG fighter jet to accompany the Ryanair plane to Minsk. But According to CBS News, Pratasevich has been “a thorn in the side” of the Belarusian leader for quite some time.
The airline put out a statement condemning the actions taken against Flight 4978, which was carrying 120 passengers, including several U.S. citizens.
Our updated statement regarding yesterday's (23 May) diversion of FR4978. pic.twitter.com/BANHrDvXMq
— Ryanair Press Office (@RyanairPress) May 24, 2021
Ryanair’s O’Leary said Belarusian KGB agents were also on the flight. During an interview with Newstalk Breakfast radio, he said that after the plane landed, five or six people didn’t reboard the plane before it took off again. Because only Pratasevich and his companion were arrested, O’Leary said it suggested the others who didn’t get back on the plane were Belarusian agents.
As the EU contemplates taking action for what the Lithuanian government called an “act of state terrorism directed against the security of citizens of the European Union,” all eyes are now turning to the White House for President Biden’s response to this latest international incident.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken issued a statement Sunday calling for the immediate release of Pratasevich.
We strongly condemn the Lukashenka regime's brazen and shocking act to divert a commercial flight and arrest a journalist. We demand an international investigation and are coordinating with our partners on next steps. The United States stands with the people of Belarus.
— Secretary Antony Blinken (@SecBlinken) May 23, 2021
The Washington Post cites a passenger on board the plane who said:
“I saw this Belarusian guy with girlfriend sitting right behind us. He freaked out when the pilot said the plane is diverted to Minsk. He said there’s death penalty awaiting him there.”