Passengers and crew on a Ryanair flight forced to land in Belarus on Sunday were frightened, and were held under armed guard, Ryanair Chief Executive Michael O’Leary said on Monday.
Belarus scrambled a fighter jet and flagged what turned out to be a false bomb alert to force a Ryanair plane to land in Minsk on Sunday, then detained Roman Protasevich, a dissident journalist who was on board, drawing condemnation from Europe and the United States.
“I think it was very frightening for the crew, for the passengers who were held under armed guard, had their bags searched, when it was clear it appears that the intent … was to remove a journalist and his traveling companion,” O’Leary told Irish Newstalk radio.
“We believe there was also some KGB agents offloaded off the aircraft as well.”
O’Leary described the diversion as “state-sponsored hijacking.”
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Protasevich, 26, had his head in his hands and was shaking when he realized the flight was headed for Minsk, Lithuania’s Delfi news outlet said, quoting a passenger. Later, as he was led away, according to the report, he remarked: “I’ll get the death penalty here.”
Reuters could not verify the report.
Protasevich worked for Poland-based online news service NEXTA, which broadcast footage of mass protests against Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko last year via the Telegram messenger app at a time when it was hard for foreign media to do so.
He now works for a different Telegram channel called Belamova, and is wanted in Belarus on extremism charges and stands accused of organizing mass riots and of inciting social hatred, allegations he denies.
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Lukashenko is an authoritarian and has ruled for 26 years, though the results of every election held since then have been disputed. Last year saw mass unrest after Lukashenko claimed a landslide victory despite what had appeared to be widespread support for the opposition leader.
Belarusians took to the streets, calling for Lukashenko to resign.
In response, Belarusian authorities cracked down, leaving hundreds injured.
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Lukashenko is closely aligned with Russia’s Vladimir Putin and the forced landing of an Irish civilian aircraft travelling from Greece to Lithuania is expected to test the European Union’s unity as it grapples with how to respond.
The EU is considering shunning Belarus’s airspace and banning national carrier Belavia from EU airports.
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The European Council is set to meet on Monday to discuss possible responses.
The International Civil Aviation Organization, headquartered in Montreal, issued a preliminary statement on Sunday warning that the forced landing appeared to be a violation of the Chicago Convention, which lays out the founding principles of international civil aviation, and to which Belarus is a signatory.
European leaders as well as those from Canada and the United States condemned the detention of Protasevich, with Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Marc Garneau calling the move “a serious interference in civil aviation and a clear attack on media freedom.”
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken called the detention a “brazen and shocking act.”
“We demand an international investigation and are coordinating with our partners on next steps,” he said on Sunday. “The United States stands with the people of Belarus.”
EU leaders meeting on Monday will discuss tightening sanctions already in place against Belarus, and could also restrict ground transit links between Belarus and the 27-nation European bloc.
“Together with international partners, we will work to close the airspace of Belarus to international flights,” Lithuanian Prime Minister Ingrida Simonyte said on Monday.
France’s Europe Minister, Clement Beaune, called the plane’s forced diversion “an act of state piracy that cannot be left unpunished,” and proposed tougher sanctions against Belarus.
“We are working on a package of measures that go beyond sanctions against individuals” and may also suspend ground transit links with the EU, French President Emmanuel Macron’s office said.
The EU has blacklisted 88 individuals and seven companies accused of “repression and intimidation” following the protests against Lukashenko last year. The sanctions also include a ban on travel to the EU for Lukashenko and his son, and the freezing of any assets they have in EU member states.
“We could extend these sanctions to other officials,” Beaune told BFM Television, suggesting an airspace ban would be “reasonable protective measure because Europeans’ lives were put at risk.”
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EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell also called for an investigation.
Latvian airline airBaltic has already said it will no longer use Belarusian airspace for its flights.
The EU has trod warily on imposing sanctions on Belarus because of the risk that it would push Lukashenko into even closer ties with Russia.
“It’s not so easy to calibrate sanctions if you want to spare the population,” a senior EU diplomat said on possible new measures against Minsk.
Germany’s Ursula von der Leyen, who heads the EU’s executive European Commission, accused Minsk of hijacking the civilian plane. Washington has also condemned “the shocking act.”
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With files from Global News’ Amanda Connolly and Hannah Jackson.