EU seals off airspace to Belarusian planes after jet seizure

The 27 national leaders demand release of dissident journalist seized in incident

EU leaders have agreed to close off the bloc's airspace to Belarusian planes, while also banning EU planes from Belarus' airspace, following the forced landing of a Ryanair plane in Minsk to seize a dissident journalist. Video: EU Council

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The European Union has agreed to impose fresh sanctions on Minsk and seal off its airspace to Belarusian airlines after the regime of autocrat Alexander Lukashenko forced the landing of a Ryanair flight to seize a dissident journalist who was aboard.

The 27 national leaders appealed for the “immediate” release of Roman Pratasevich and his girlfriend Sofia Sapega in joint conclusions as they met in Brussels to co-ordinate a response to an incident described by Ryanair as “an act of aviation piracy”.

The jet bound for Lithuania was diverted by a bomb threat – an explanation dismissed as “completely implausible” by German Chancellor Angela Merkel – and accompanied by a fighter plane to the Belarusian capital Minsk, where the couple were removed and detained by authorities.

Belarus journalist Raman Pratasevich in November 2019. Photograph: Euroradio via AP
Belarus journalist Raman Pratasevich in November 2019. Photograph: Euroradio via AP

Sapega’s university in Vilnius called for the 23-year-old student to be released, while pro-Lukashenko channels released a video of Pratasevich in which the prominent opposition reporter appeared visibly bruised and confessed to instigating unrest.

In a joint agreement on Monday night the national leaders said they “strongly condemn the forced landing”, called on EU-based airlines to avoid flying over Belarus, and stated that the country’s airlines should be excluded from EU airspace and airports.

Targeted

They called on the International Civil Aviation Organisation to investigate the “unprecedented and unacceptable incident”, and instructed EU officials to draw up a new list of individuals and entities in Belarus to be targeted for fresh sanctions. The leaders also expressed solidarity with Latvia, after its diplomats were booted from Belarus in tit-for-tat expulsions.

Taoiseach Micheál Martin described the incident as reflecting the erosion of democratic norms.

“I think it reflects a growing authoritarianism, in the globe, near to Europe, and countries who espouse democratic values and international rules of engagement have to stand up to this type of behaviour,” he told journalists.

An EU official said agreement had been reached “very quickly” and that the response was due to the “serious endangering of aviation safety and passengers on board by Belarusian authorities”.

European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen predicted that the ultimate sanctions would fall on individuals involved in the incident, on businesses that finance the Lukashenko regime, and on the aviation sector.

Ahead of the conference, at which the member states were also to discuss the EU’s relationship with Russia, response to Covid-19 and plans to combat climate change, a string of leaders condemned the forced landing.

Reflecting an atmosphere of ill-trust, electronic devices were removed from the room “to ensure the confidentiality of the discussion on Belarus and on Russia”, a spokesman for European Council president Charles Michel said.

Crackdown

The act by the regime of Lukashenko – a pariah in the West since the alleged rigging of an election in 2020 to preserve his 26-year reign and a subsequent brutal crackdown on pro-democracy protests – drew condemnation around the world.

Britain’s transport secretary Grant Shapps ordered airlines to avoid Belarusian airspace and revoked the permit of national airline Belavia, while White House secretary Jen Psaki declared: “We are outraged.”

European commissioner Vera Jourova described it as an “act of terror” while Lithuanian president Gitanas Nauséda said Belarusian airspace was now “unsafe”.

Airlines including Latvia’s airBaltic and Scandinavian’s SAS said they would cease using Belarusian airspace, while Ukraine and Lithuania banned flights to and from the country.

Belarusian officials claimed the plane was forced to land due to a bomb threat from the Palestinian group Hamas.

Fellow passengers recalled a panic-striken Pratasevich telling those around him he would be executed as he realised the flight was being diverted to Minsk. The Belarus regime had placed him on a terrorism watchlist and accused him of crimes related to the pro-democracy protests, seen by Minsk and Moscow as a western-orchestrated plot to end Mr Lukashenko’s rule.