EU turns on Belarus for Ryanair ‘hijack’ – airspace could be sealed off and flights banned

Belarus: Polish MEP quizzed on ‘mixed messages’ after interception

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EU leaders condemned the move by Belarus to divert the plane and will discuss possible sanctions against its president Alexander Lukashenko at a Brussels summit today. Lithuania, where the Ryanair airliner was bound for, has called on the EU to declare Belarusian airspace unsafe and refuse to allow its aircraft to land at the bloc’s airports. Mr Lukashenko was said to have personally ordered fighter jets to intercept the commercial plane carrying more than 120 passengers following an alleged bomb scare.

State media then reported Roman Protasevich, an opposition activist resident in Lithuania, was detained on Sunday after Ryanair flight FR4978 was diverted to Minsk shortly before it was due to leave Belarusian airspace.

Belarus’s president gave an “irrevocable command to turn the plane around and land it”, according to a semi-official post on the Telegram messaging app.

Ahead of the EU meeting, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen warned: “The outrageous and illegal behaviour of the regime in Belarus will have consequences.”

She added: “Those responsible for the Ryanair hijacking must be sanctioned.”

Mr Protasevich, 26, is the former editor of Nexta, a Warsaw-based media group, that played a prominent role in covering and directing massive protests against Mr Lukashenko’s regime last year.

The activist was on the Ryanair flight from Athens to Lithuania, and warned colleagued that he suspected a Belarusian KGB agent was following him.

The Ryanair flight was turned round near the Lithuanian border and landed in Minsk, according to flight-tracking data.

Belarus scrambled a MiG-29 fighter jet to accompany the plane after learning of an alleged bomb threat.

Airport officials later said the scare was “false”.

Ryanair said the flight crew were “notified by Belarus of a potential security threat on board”.

The company added: “Nothing untoward was found and authorities cleared the aircraft to depart together with passengers and crew after approximately seven hours on the ground in Minsk.”

It later “notified the relevant national and European safety and security agencies”.

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Once the plane had landed, officials immediately detained Mr Protasevich.

European officials have since pledged to discuss “possible sanctions” at an EU meeting today.

Poland demanded immediate sanctions against Belarus.

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Mateusz Morawicki, its prime minister, said: “Hijacking of a civilian plane is an unprecedented act of state terror.

“It cannot go unpunished.”

Lithuanian foreign minister Gabrielus Landsbergis said: “The entire EU has been brutally attacked and must respond in the strictest way.”

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