The “hijacking” of a plane flying from Greece to Lithuania by the regime in Belarus has caused a flutter in the Western roost, with the European Union contemplating sanctions and the US State Department adopting a relatively mild view of “a shocking act”.
Western countries have condemned Belarus for diverting a plane flying over its territory to arrest a journalist who had earned Minsk’s ire.
The action in itself has been almost incredible. Belarussian authorities are said to have scrambled a Mig-29 fighter jet to force the plane ~ bound for Lithuania ~ to land, claiming a bomb threat. Police took the journalist, Roman Protasevich, away when passengers disembarked. The 26- year-old was aboard the Ryanair flight from Athens.
The aircraft was due to land in Vilnius, but was still in Belarusian airspace when it was told to divert to Minsk, the capital of Belarus. Witnesses said the activist was “super-scared” and told fellow passengers he would face the death penalty because Belarus is the only European country that still executes prisoners.
According to the state media in Belarus, President Alexander Lukashenko had personally given the order for the move. The incident stoked sharp condemnation from across the European Union, with countries urging the immediate release of Mr Protasevich and a full investigation. The EU later summoned the Belarusian ambassador and informed him of the bloc’s “firm condemnation”.
Several Belarusian officials, including President Lukashenko, are already under EU sanctions that include travel bans and asset freezes, imposed in response to the repression of opponents. Arguably, the domestic turmoil may also have played its part in influencing Monday’s drama in the skies. Ever since he won a disputed election last August, Mr Lukashenko, 66, who has ruled the country since 1994, has cracked down on dissenting voices.
Many opposition figures have been arrested, while others have fled into exile. The journalist too was living in exile in Lithuania since 2019 and was assisting an independent news outlet disseminate news about Belarus that the authorities in Minsk clearly deemed offensive.
EU leaders are due to discuss their response at a summit in Brussels on Monday. Nato ambassadors are due to meet on Tuesday.
The package of measures being discussed includes a ban on overflights of Belarus, a ban on entry to European airports by the national carrier, Belavia, and a suspension of ground transport links.
“The outrageous and illegal behaviour will have consequences,” was the warning advanced by Ursula von der Leyen, head of the European Commission.
By all accounts, it has been a high-voltage and complex drama with the dramatis personnae drawn from Russia, Europe, the United States of America and also of course, Belarus.