Russia backs Belarus over Ryanair incident as west denounces ‘hijacking’

Belarusian opposition leader mocks Minsk’s claim of ‘Hamas bomb threat’ against aircraft

Roman Protasevich: Belarus has put him  on a terrorism watch list and accused him of several crimes in connection with protest  rallies. Photograph:  Getty Images

Roman Protasevich: Belarus has put him on a terrorism watch list and accused him of several crimes in connection with protest rallies. Photograph: Getty Images

 

Belarus has defended its decision to force a Ryanair jet to land at Minsk airport and received backing from chief ally Russia, as western states denounced the “hijacking” of the airliner and the arrest of an opposition figure who was on board.

Belarusian officials said Sunday’s Ryanair flight from Athens in Greece to the Lithuanian capital Vilnius landed in Minsk – escorted by a MiG-29 fighter jet – after a bomb threat was made against the aircraft by someone supposedly from the Palestinian militant group Hamas.

The unsubstantiated claim is likely to hold little water with western states, which accused Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko of flouting international air traffic norms to force the plane down so that police could arrest journalist and activist Roman Protasevich, a prominent opponent of his autocratic regime.

“There is no doubt that the actions of our competent authorities ... fully complied with established international rules,” Belarusian foreign ministry spokesman Anatoly Glaz insisted on Monday.

“The situation is clearly escalating. It is being deliberately politicised, totally unconfirmed accusations are being heard... At the same time there is no visible desire to sort it out objectively. Instead slogans about sanctions have again immediately been heard.”

Sanctions

The European Union and United States imposed sanctions on Mr Lukashenko and allies after he claimed victory in a deeply flawed election last August and launched a brutal crackdown on critics who took to the streets in unprecedented numbers to protest.

Belarus put Mr Protasevich on a terrorism watch list and accused him of several crimes in connection with the rallies, which Minsk and Moscow claimed were part of a western-orchestrated plot to end Mr Lukashenko’s 26-year rule.

“We are in favour of having this situation assessed not in a rush, not in a hurry, but based on all the available information,” Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said of the Ryanair incident.

He said Minsk had expressed “readiness ... to act on the issue in a transparent manner and follow all international rules. I think this is an absolutely reasonable approach”.

Prominent Russian deputy Leonid Kalashnikov argued that Belarus was justified in forcing the aircraft to land over a supposed bomb threat and in arresting Mr Protasevich (26) as an alleged threat to national security.

Panicked

Raselle Grigoryeva, a Lithuanian travelling on the aircraft, told ABC News that passengers “panicked because we thought we were going to crash...This was a sudden dive, changing the altitude very drastically. It was very violent.”

Other passengers said Mr Protasevich had begun shaking with fear as the plane approached Minsk, and gave his laptop and phone to his girlfriend Sofia Sapega – who was also detained upon landing.

Exiled Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya said “the regime is desperately trying to find justifications for its actions. Now they blame Hamas... However, they will not avoid responsibility for what happened.

“We don’t know what is happening to Roman. He could be interrogated by the KGB, he may be tortured as an enemy of Lukashenko...We demand the European Union, US, UK, Canada, Ukraine impose sanctions on Lukashenko personally, on his cronies and all companies and individuals sponsoring the regime,” she said.