The European Union has agreed to impose fresh sanctions against Belarus, including moves to seal off the bloc's airspace to Belarusian airlines, amid strong Western condemnation over the forced diversion of a commercial airliner on a flight between two EU member states to arrest an opposition journalist.
The Ryanair flight was forced to land on May 23 in Minsk, where 26-year-old Belarusian journalist and opposition activist Raman Pratasevich and his girlfriend were detained. The EU demanded their immediate release, with some leaders calling the incident "state hijacking."
Following an EU summit in Brussels on May 24, the bloc instructed officials to "adopt necessary measures to ban overflight of EU airspace by Belarusian airlines and prevent access to EU airports," European Council President Charles Michel's spokesman Barend Leyts said in a statement posted on Twitter.
The summit's conclusions came as Pratasevich, in a video released on Belarusian state TV on May 24, said he was "confessing" to charges of being behind civil disturbances, an offense punishable by up to 15 years in prison.
"I can say that I have no health problems.... I continue cooperating with investigators and am confessing to having organized mass unrest in the city of Minsk," he says in the video, in which he appears to have black marks on his forehead. The Belarusian opposition and Pratasevich's allies dismissed the comments as made under duress.
Dmitry Pratasevich, the detained Belarusian journalist's father, told RFE/RL the family was "very worried about what is happening to our son." Pratasevich's parents said they feared their son, who has lived in Lithuania and Poland since he fled a brutal crackdown against the opposition in Belarus, would be tortured.
In the statement adopted at the summit, the leaders said the EU "demands the immediate release" of Pratasevich and his girlfriend and called on the European Council to adopt additional sanctions on Belarusian persons and entities.
Leaders also urged the bloc's airlines to avoid Belarus's airspace and called on the UN's International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) to urgently investigate the incident, which it called "unprecedented and unacceptable." The UN agency said its 36 diplomatic representatives will meet on May 27 to discuss Belarus's actions.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres also backed calls for an independent investigation into the plane diversion.
The EU also voiced its solidarity with member Latvia, which announced it was expelling all Belarusian diplomats, including the Belarusian ambassador, in a tit-for-tat measure.
Earlier on May 24, Belarus expelled Latvia's ambassador to Minsk and all the embassy's employees apart from one staff member. The Belarusian Foreign Ministry announced that move after the Latvia-based airBaltic joined other airlines that are avoiding Belarus airspace.
Polish national carrier LOT, Hungarian airline Wizzair, Scandinavian airline SAS, and Dutch airline KLM were among airliners announcing a halt to using Belarus's airspace.
Lithuanian Transport Minister Marius Skuodis announced that all flights to and from Lithuanian airports must avoid Belarusian airspace from midnight GMT on May 25.
British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said the UK would suspend the air permit that allows flights in British airspace by the Belarus's national airline, Belavia -- a move that effectively blocks it from using Britain's transit hub at Heathrow International Airport. Raab also said British authorities are instructing British airlines to cease all of their flights over Belarusian airspace.
Raab told Parliament that Belarus "must be held to account for such reckless and dangerous behavior.”
"The scenario as reported is a shocking assault on civil aviation and an assault on international law," he said. "It represents a danger to civilian flights everywhere."
The diversion of the flight and the detention of Pratasevich has also been met by criticism from the United States, which has pledged to coordinate a response with its European allies.
The Ryanair flight from Athens to Lithuania's capital, Vilnius, was diverted on the orders of Belarusian strongman leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka as it was flying through Belarusian airspace.
Belarusian authorities said the flight to Vilnius was diverted because of a bomb threat from Hamas, a claim the Palestinian militant group rejected.
Rolandas Kiskis, the Lithuanian chief of criminal police, said five of the 126 passengers who boarded the Ryanair flight in Athens did not reach Vilnius, though he would not elaborate.
But Ryanair Chief Executive Officer Michael O'Leary said the airline believes "there were some [Belarusian security agency] KGB agents offloaded at the airport as well."
Although the Ryanair flight was closer to Vilnius when it was intercepted, Minsk claims the diversion and forced landing with a MiG-29 fighter jet escort was necessary because Belarusian authorities were informed there was a bomb on the plane. No explosive device was found.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel dismissed that explanation as "completely implausible."
"We have seen a forced landing that led to the arrest," Merkel said on May 24 ahead of the summit. "All other explanations for the landing of this Ryanair flight are completely implausible."
"This was effectively aviation piracy, state sponsored," Ireland's Foreign Minister Simon Coveney said. Ryanair is headquartered in Dublin.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg denounced the diversion as a "serious and dangerous incident." NATO officials say the military alliance will discuss the matter on May 25.
Many European leaders already have called for expanded sanctions against the regime of Lukashenka, who has led a sometimes violent and deadly crackdown on dissent in his country since mass protests broke over the disputed results of last August's presidential election.
Russia accused the West of hypocrisy, reiterating accusations that in 2013 a flight from Moscow carrying then-Bolivian President Evo Morales had been diverted to Austria after reports that fugitive U.S. intelligence leaker Edward Snowden might be on board.
Speaking to reporters, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov wouldn't say if the Belarusian authorities had contacted Russia about the incident.
Russia and Belarus have close political, economic and military ties, and Lukashenka has relied on Moscow's support amid Western sanctions.
The EU has already imposed three rounds of sanctions against Belarus and was preparing a fourth round before the Ryanair event, including further asset freezes and visa bans on Belarusian officials and entities amid the ongoing crackdown on the opposition and pro-democracy protesters.
Belarus has been rocked by protests since Lukashenka, in power since 1994, was declared the landslide winner of a presidential election in August 2020 that the West and opposition deem fraudulent.
Crisis In Belarus
Read our ongoing coverage as Belarusian strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka continues his brutal crackdown on NGOs, activists, and independent media following the August 2020 presidential election, widely seen as fraudulent.
Since then, more than 30,000 people have been detained, hundreds beaten or tortured, and journalists targeted in the crackdown by Lukashenka.
The opposition says Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who fled to neighboring Lithuania after the election due to concerns about her safety, was the true winner of the vote.
Pratasevich was a key administrator of the Telegram channel Nexta Live, which has been covering the protests that broke out in Belarus following the disputed presidential election.
Belarusian authorities in November 2020 launched investigations into Pratasevich and a colleague, Stsyapan Putsila, on suspicion of the organization of mass disorder, disruption of social order, and inciting social hatred.
Describing Pratasevich as a high-profile opponent of Lukashenka, Tsikhanouskaya told Sky News on May 24 that she was "really afraid not only for his freedom, but for his life.
Pratasevich spoke to Current Time from an undisclosed location in Poland on November 19, 2020, after Belarusian authorities issued a warrant for his arrest.
"It seems to me that the [state] power now considers nearly any expression of a different opinion in general to be a crime,” Pratasevich said, saying this was clear from the number of people who were being detained. Current Time is a Russian-language network run by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA.
In October 2020, a court in Minsk designated the Nexta Live channel and its logo as extremist and instructed the Information Ministry to restrict access to information resources using the name and logo of the Telegram channel, as well as their distribution in the Belarusian segment of the Internet.
Media in Belarus have been targeted by the Lukashenka government in the ongoing crackdown. The watchdog Reporters Without Borders has designated Belarus as the most dangerous spot in Europe for journalists.