UK threatens sanctions as Belarus accused of 'state-sponsored hijacking' by Ryanair boss

23 May 2021, 21:09 | Updated: 24 May 2021, 15:46

The Ryanair flight was diverted to Belarus
The Ryanair flight was diverted to Belarus. Picture: PA

By Patrick Grafton-Green

The UK has threatened sanctions amid growing condemnation of Belarus after an opposition journalist was arrested following the diversion of a Ryanair flight.

Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko must be held to account for his "outlandish actions", adding he was working with allies on a coordinated response.

Leaders from the European Union are holding emergency talks to discuss the situation.

Ryanair boss Michael O'Leary has described what happened as a "state-sponsored hijacking" and claimed agents from Russia's KJB were on board the flight.

READ MORE: Who is Roman Protasevich, activist arrested in Belarus?

READ MORE: Dominic Raab calls for new 'free and fair' election in Belarus

Activist and blogger Roman Protasevich was arrested after the plane - which was travelling from Athens to the Lithuanian capital Vilnius - changed course to head for Minsk following a bomb scare.

Mr Raab said: "The UK condemns yesterday's actions by the Belarusian authorities, who arrested journalist Roman Protasevich on the basis of a ruse, having forced his flight to land in Minsk.

"Mr Lukashenko must be held to account for his outlandish actions.

"The UK calls for the immediate release of Mr Protasevich and other political prisoners held in Belarus.

"The UK is working with our allies on a coordinated response, including further sanctions."

Raman Pratasevich pictured in 2017
Raman Pratasevich pictured in 2017. Picture: PA

He said the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO)'s council should hold an urgent meeting to consider the regime's flouting of the rules.

The ICAO has said it is "strongly concerned by the apparent forced landing".

Mr Raab will update MPs on the situation on Monday afternoon.

Ryanair boss Michael O'Leary told Newstalk: "I think it's very frightening for the crew, for the passengers who were held under armed guard, had their bags searched.

"It was clear it appears that the intent of the Russian authorities was to remove a journalist and his traveling companion.

"We believe there was also some KGB agents offloaded from the aircraft as well."

Ireland's foreign affairs minister Simon Coveney has described the incident as state-sponsored "aviation piracy".

He told RTE: "The EU has to give a very clear response to this, otherwise we're giving all the wrong signals."

European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen tweeted on Sunday: "It is utterly unacceptable to force @Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius to land in Minsk."

There were 171 passengers on the plane, according to Lithuanian foreign minister Gabrielius Landsbergis.

Officials said no explosives were found on board.

Flight-tracker sites indicate the plane was about six miles from the Lithuanian border when it changed course.

Mr Pratasevich, who was living in Poland after fleeing Belarus, was arrested at the airport.

He is a co-founder of the Telegram messaging app's Nexta channel, which was declared extremist by Belarus last year after it was used to help organise major protests against Mr Lukashenko.

He faces charges that could carry a prison sentence of up to 15 years.

Exiled opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya said: "It is absolutely obvious that this is an operation by the special services to hijack an aircraft in order to detain activist and blogger Raman Pratasevich.

"Not a single person who flies over Belarus can be sure of his safety."

Months of protests started after last August's presidential election that, according to official results, gave Mr Lukashenko a sixth term in office.

Police cracked down on the protests, detaining around 30,000 people and beating many of them.

Although protests died down during the winter, Belarus has continued to take action against the opposition and independent news media.

Last week, 11 staff members of the news website were detained by police.