Belarus faces international fury after using fighter jet to land airliner, seize journalist

“Piracy”, “kidnapping” and “state terrorism” – the condemnation of Belarus was swift and violent after it forced an airliner to land with an opposition journalist.

In a show of unified anger The United States, Great Britain, the European UnionNATO and the United Nations lined up on Monday to proclaim the action in the heavens over the Eastern European country led by Alexander Lukashenko, often referred to as Europe’s last dictator.

“We strongly condemn the brazen and shocking act of the Lukashenka regime” State Secretary Antony Blinken said on Sunday using an alternate spelling for Lukashenko, noting that American passengers were on board the flight.

“We are calling for an international investigation and are coordinating the next steps with our partners. The United States stands with the people of Belarus,” he added.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki condemned Belarus’s actions and called for an immediate international investigation into the incident.

“It was a shocking act to redirect an escape between two EU member states to arrest a journalist. This is a brazen affront to the international peace and security regime,” said Psaki.

Psaki said President Joe Biden was briefed on the episode Monday morning, and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan “expressed our strong concerns about this issue, the actions of the Belarusian government,” during a meeting on Monday with his Russian counterpart. Russian President Vladimir Putin supported Lukashenko.

Psaki declined to say whether the White House deems it safe for U.S. airlines to fly in Belarusian airspace.

EU. Commission President Ursula von der Leyen tweeted on Sunday that “the outrageous and illegal behavior of the regime in Belarus will have consequences.”

Former President of the European Council Donald Tusk called the incident an “act of state terrorism”.

The chorus of international anger follows the emergency landing of a Ryanair flight in Minsk, the Belarusian capital, on Sunday with the main opposition blogger Roman Protasevich. Protasevich was arrested upon arrival, officials and right-wing activists said.

The advertising The passenger plane Ryanair traveled from Greece to Lithuania When a Soviet-era MiG-29 fighter plane was nearby and Belarusian authorities reported a false bomb alarm to force the plane to land.

Protasevich, 26, works for that Poland-based online news service NEXTA and is wanted in Belarus for broadcasting mass protests against Lukashenko last year via the Telegram messenger app.

Opposition journalist and activist Roman Protasevich comes to Minsk, Belarus, for a trial in 2017.Reuters file

According to passengers on the jet speaking to Reuters, Protasevich was holding his head in his hands and looking sad and scared upon landing. He also appeared to be giving his laptop and cell phone to a companion while the authorities later arrested Protasevich upon his arrival in Minsk.

It is unclear what charges or prison terms Protasevich could face, but Belarus is still one of a handful of European countries that impose the death penalty.

“It sounds like an extraordinary Hollywood conspiracy, but it isn’t. The reality of this obvious act of air piracy is terrifying,” said Marie Struthers, human rights group Amnesty International Eastern Europe and Central Asia director said in a statement.

Struthers said the European Union and “the rest of the world must act immediately” by demanding the immediate release of Protasevich.

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Michael O’LearyThe Ryanair executive who operated the flight described the incident on Irish Newstalk Radio as “government sponsored kidnapping … government sponsored piracy”.

A spokesman for the Belarusian Foreign Ministry, Anatoly Glaz, fought back what he called “warlike” statements by the West on Monday and said the government’s measures were in accordance with international law.

During the unrest in Belarus last August after Lukashenko’s re-election – the president’s alleged landslide victory was widely criticized – the then candidate Joe Biden said The people of Belarus were exposed to “systematic oppression” and lived under an “authoritarian regime”. Lukashenko denies election fraud.

The EU. has already imposed three rounds of sanctions on Belarus in response to last year’s hotly contested presidential elections. Some European politicians are now calling for tougher next steps, including the Suspension of E.U. Airlines flying over Belarus and a ban on landing Belarusian airlines at E.U. Airports.

But the E.U. must also proceed cautiously to avoid bringing Lukashenko even closer to Russia’s most important ally.

So far, the Russian President Vladimir Putin has not commented, but the editor-in-chief of the state-controlled Russia Today tweeted that Lukashenko had “played wonderfully”.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on Monday that he would not comment on the incident. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said during a separate press conference on Monday that Russia was “in favor of no rush, no rush to assess this situation”.

A Latvian airline, airBaltic, was the first to announce on Monday that it would no longer fly over Belarusian airspace.

Tatyana Chistikova, Reuters and Lauren Egan contributed.

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