European Council president Charles Michel said Minsk was playing “Russian roulette” after a Ryanair flight was diverted and a prominent critic arrested in Belarus.
Journalist Roman Protasevich was on board a Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius on Sunday when it was forced to change course to head for the Belarussian capital after a reported bomb scare, escorted by a MiG fighter jet.
He was arrested and, in a video released by Belarusian authorities on Monday evening, appeared to admit he was involved in organising mass protests in Minsk last year.
‘Russian roulette with the lives of innocent civilians’
The European Union and the UK have issued new sanctions against Belarus in light of the incident, with Transport Secretary Grant Shapps instructing the Civil Aviation Authority to request airlines avoid Belarusian air space “to keep passengers safe”.
He also suspended the operating permit for Belavia, the country’s state-owned airline, while EU leaders have called on member states to do similar.
Speaking in the early hours of Tuesday in Brussels, Mr Michel said the events were “unacceptable, shocking and scandalous”.
“We will not tolerate that they play Russian roulette with the lives of innocent civilians,” he added.
Mr Michel also called for the release of Mr Protasevich – a critic of Belarussian president Alexander Lukashenko – and his Russian girlfriend Sofia Sapega.
Mr Lukashenko has been president of Belarus since the post was established in 1994 and won re-election for a sixth time in 2020 with 80% of the vote, in a ballot deemed “neither free nor fair” by the EU.
European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen said the incident was a “hijacking”.
She said: “This is an attack on democracy. This is an attack on freedom of expression.
“And this is an attack on European sovereignty. And this outrageous behaviour needs a strong answer.”
Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said it was “very difficult to believe” the seizure of Mr Protasevich from the flight could have taken place “without at least the acquiescence of the authorities in Moscow”.
He said that although the situation was not yet clear, the relationship between Minsk and Moscow suggested Russian leaders may have been aware of the plans in advance.
In the Commons on Monday, he said: “It’s very difficult to believe that this kind of action could have been taken without at least the acquiescence of the authorities in Moscow, but, as I say, it’s unclear as yet.”
Speaking to reporters later, he was asked why he believed it could not have taken place without Russia being aware, and Mr Raab replied: “Based on all the circumstances. But we don’t know – it is just the proximity of the relationship between Minsk and Moscow.”
Ryanair boss Michael O’Leary said the incident was a “state-sponsored hijacking” and claimed agents from Russia’s KGB were on board the flight.
“It was clear it appears that the intent of the Russian authorities was to remove a journalist and his travelling companion. We believe there was also some KGB agents offloaded from the aircraft as well,” he said.