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EU Leaders 'Strongly Condemn' Belarus For Diverting Civilian Plane, Agree On More Sanctions

By RFE/RL May 24, 2021

The European Union has agreed at a summit in Brussels on a set of sanctions against Belarus and strongly condemned the use of a MiG-29 fighter jet to divert a civilian plane on a flight between two EU member states.

The plane was forced to land on May 23 in Minsk, where 26-year-old Belarusian journalist and opposition activist Raman Pratasevich and his girlfriend were detained. The EU called for their immediate release.

The bloc also said it would seal off its airspace and airports to Belarusian airlines, the European Council president's spokesperson announced on Twitter.

The summit's conclusions came as Pratasevich, in a video released on Belarusian state TV on May 24, said he was "confessing" to charges of being behind civil disturbances, an offense punishable by up to 15 years in prison.

"I can say that I have no health problems.... I continue cooperating with investigators and am confessing to having organized mass unrest in the city of Minsk," he says in the video, in which he appears to have black marks on his forehead.

In the statement adopted at the summit the leaders said the EU "demands the immediate release" of Pratasevich and his girlfriend and called on the European Council to adopt additional sanctions on Belarusian persons and entities.

Leaders also urged the bloc's airlines to avoid Belarus airspace and called on the UN's International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) to urgently investigate the incident, which it called "unprecedented and unacceptable."

The ICAO said its 36 diplomatic representatives will meet on May 27 to discuss Belarus's actions.

In the video broadcast by state television, Pratasevich is wearing a black hoodie and sits behind a table in a room with a pack of cigarettes by his side.

"I am in Detention Center No. 1 in Minsk. I can say that I have no health problems, including with my heart or any other organs," he said in the clip that appears to have been filmed on a phone camera.

He fidgets with his hands as he makes the statement.

"The attitude of employees toward me is as correct as possible and according to the law. I continue cooperating with investigators and am confessing to having organized mass unrest in Minsk," he says.

It was not possible to verify whether he made the statements under duress.

Meanwhile, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on May 24 backed calls for an independent investigation.

His spokesman, Stephane Dujarric, said Guterres was "deeply concerned over the apparent forced landing of a passenger aircraft over Belarus...and the subsequent detention" of the journalist.

"The secretary-general supports calls for a full, transparent and independent investigation into this disturbing incident and urges all relevant actors to cooperate with such an inquiry," Dujarric said.

The agenda of the EU summit also included talks about unspecified measures related to ground transport links between Belarus and the EU.

Meanwhile, Latvia announced it was expelling all Belarusian diplomats, including the Belarusian ambassador, in a tit-for-tat measure as diplomatic fallout intensifies over the incident.

Earlier on May 24, Belarus expelled Latvia's ambassador to Minsk and all the embassy's employees apart from one staff member. The Belarusian Foreign Ministry announced the move after the Latvia-based airBaltic joined other airlines that are avoiding Belarus airspace.

Polish national carrier LOT and Hungarian airline Wizzair said they would follow suit, while Lithuanian Transport Minister Marius Skuodis announced that all flights to and from Lithuanian airports must avoid Belarusian airspace from midnight GMT on May 25.

The Ryanair flight from Athens to Lithuania's capital, Vilnius, was diverted on the orders of Belarusian strongman leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka as it was flying through Belarusian airspace on May 23.

Pratasevich has lived in Lithuania and Poland since he fled a brutal crackdown against the opposition in Belarus.

His social-media feed from his self-imposed exile has been one of the last remaining independent outlets for news about Belarus after a 10-month crackdown by authorities there.

Belarusian authorities said the flight to Vilnius was diverted because of a bomb threat from Hamas, a claim the Palestinian militant group has rejected.

Rolandas Kiskis, the chief of Lithuania's criminal police, said five of the 126 passengers who boarded the Ryanair flight in Athens did not reach Vilnius, though he would not elaborate.

But Ryanair CEO Michael O'Leary said the airline believes that "there were some [Belarusian security agency] KGB agents offloaded at the airport as well."

Although the Ryanair flight was closer to Vilnius when it was intercepted, Minsk claims the diversion and forced landing was necessary because Belarusian authorities were informed there was a bomb on the plane. No explosive device was found.

But German Chancellor Angela Merkel dismissed that explanation as "completely implausible."

"We have seen a forced landing that led to the arrest," Merkel said on May 24 as she arrived at the EU emergency summit in Brussels. "All other explanations for the landing of this Ryanair flight are completely implausible."

European Union leaders and other Western officials on May 24 accused Belarus of "aviation piracy," threatening sanctions and demanding a full investigation.

British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab on May 24 called for the immediate release of Pratasevich, saying the Belarusian journalist had been arrested on "the basis of a ruse."

Raab told Parliament that "Lukashenka's regime must be held to account for such reckless and dangerous behavior," adding that London was working with its allies on more sanctions against Belarus.

"The scenario as reported is a shocking assault on civil aviation and an assault on international law," he said. "It represents a danger to civilian flights everywhere."

The British Foreign Secretary also said London is, with immediate effect, suspending the air permit that allows flights in British airspace by the Belarus's national airline, Belavia -- a move that effectively blocks the Belarusian airline from using Britain's transit hub at Heathrow International Airport.

Raab also said British authorities were instructing British airlines to cease all of their flights over Belarusian airspace.

The European Union, Belgium, and the Czech Republic have summoned the Belarusian ambassadors to protest against the forced landing.

The European External Action Service said Ambassador Alyaksandr Mikhnevich was informed of the "firm condemnation by the EU institutions and EU member states of the coercive act by which the Belarusian authorities have jeopardized the safety of passengers and crew."

Belgium and the Czech Republic also summoned their Belarusian ambassadors, with Belgian Foreign Minister Sophie Wilmes writing on Twitter that Belarus's "unjustified and unacceptable actions would not remain without consequences."

A spokeswoman for the Czech Foreign Ministry also warned that such a violation of international law would not go without response.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg denounced the diversion as a "serious and dangerous incident." NATO officials say the military alliance will discuss the matter on May 25.

Many European leaders have already called for expanded sanctions against the regime of Lukashenka, who has led a sometimes violent and deadly crackdown on dissent in his country since mass protests broke over the disputed results of a presidential election in August 2020.

"This was effectively aviation piracy, state sponsored," Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney said.

The French presidency said a request had been sent to the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) to suspend international flights over Belarusian airspace while an investigation is launched.

The ICAO has described the incident as a possible violation of international air-travel rules.

"In carrying out this coercive act, the Belarusian authorities have jeopardized the safety of passengers and crew," EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said ion May 24. "This is yet another blatant attempt by the Belarusian authorities to silence all opposition voices."

"We call for the immediate release of Mr. Pratasevich," Borrell said.

Dmitry Pratasevich, the detained Belarusian journalist's father, told RFE/RL the family was "very worried about what is happening to our son."

"Unfortunately, we don't know where he is and how he's doing," he said.

Russia accused the West of hypocrisy, reiterating accusations that in 2013 a flight from Moscow carrying Bolivian President Evo Morales had been diverted to Austria after reports that fugitive U.S. intelligence leaker Edward Snowden might be on board.

Speaking to reporters, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov wouldn't say if the Belarusian authorities had contacted Russia about the incident.

Russia and Belarus have close political, economic and military ties, and Lukashenka has relied on Moscow's support amid Western sanctions.

Pratasevich and his girlfriend, Sofia Sapega, were immediately separated upon arrival in Minsk and taken away by police. Ryanair said the aircraft arrived safely in Vilnius after a delay of several hours. Their whereabouts remain unclear.

The EU has already imposed three rounds of sanctions against Belarus and was preparing a fourth round before the Ryanair event, including further asset freezes and visa bans on Belarusian officials and entities amid the ongoing crackdown on the opposition and pro-democracy protesters.

Belarus has been rocked by protests since Lukashenka, in power since 1994, was declared the landslide winner of a presidential election in August 2020 that the West and opposition deem fraudulent.

Since then, more than 30,000 people have been detained, hundreds beaten or tortured, and journalists targeted in the crackdown by Lukashenka, whose government has been hit by Western sanctions.

The opposition says Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who fled to neighboring Lithuania after the election due to concerns about her safety, was the true winner of the vote.

The diversion of the flight between two EU members and the detention of Pratasevich were also met by criticism from U.S. officials.

"The United States strongly condemns the forced diversion of a flight between two EU member states and the subsequent removal and arrest of journalist Raman Pratasevich in Minsk. We demand his immediate release," he said in a statement.

Belarusian Foreign Ministry spokesman Anatol Hlaz rejected criticism, saying in a statement, "There is no doubt that the actions of our competent authorities...fully met established international rules."

Hlaz accused the West of "politicizing" the situation by making "unfounded accusations."

Pratasevich was a key administrator of the Telegram channel Nexta Live, which has been covering the protests that broke out in Belarus following the disputed presidential election.

He had fled the country, fearing prosecution.

Belarusian authorities in November 2020 launched investigations into Pratasevich and a colleague, Stsyapan Putsila, on suspicion of the organization of mass disorder, disruption of social order, and inciting social hatred.

Describing Pratasevich as a high-profile opponent of Lukashenka, Tsikhanouskaya told Sky News on May 24 that she was "really afraid not only for his freedom, but for his life."

Sapega is a Russian citizen at the Vilnius-based European Humanities University (EHU).

Pratasevich spoke to Current Time from an undisclosed location in Poland on November 19, 2020, after Belarusian authorities issued a warrant for his arrest.

"It seems to me that the [state] power now considers nearly any expression of a different opinion in general to be a crime," Pratasevich said, saying this was clear from the number of people who were being detained. Current Time is a Russian-language network run by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA.

In October 2020, a court in Minsk designated the Nexta Live channel and its logo as extremist and instructed the Information Ministry to restrict access to information resources using the name and logo of the Telegram channel, as well as their distribution in the Belarusian segment of the Internet.

Media in Belarus have been targeted by the Lukashenka government in the ongoing crackdown. The watchdog Reporters Without Borders has designated Belarus as the most dangerous spot in Europe for journalists.

With reporting by RFE/RL's Belarus Service, Reuters, AP, and AFP

Source: https://www.rferl.org/a/belarus-western-outrage -airliner-hijacking/31270390.html

Copyright (c) 2021. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.

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