EU brands Minsk flight stop ‘international scandal’ amid calls for sanctions

(Update: adds info from European Council summit)

International Desk, May 24 (EFE).- The leader of the Belarusian opposition in exile has called for fresh international sanctions on Minsk after authorities diverted a commercial Ryanair flight to arrest a prominent opposition journalist, an incident the European Union has branded an “international scandal.”

In a brief press conference in the Lithuanian capital Vilnius, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya described the plane diversion as an act of “state terrorism” that meant no Belarusian civilian flying in the country’s air space was safe.

“We urge the international community to respond, to impose new sanctions, to exclude Belarus from the International Civil Aviation Organization and to open an investigation so that all the culprits are punished,” she said.

The Ryanair flight from Greece to Lithuania was ordered to land in Minsk on Sunday.

Roman Protasevich, a blogger who co-founded the Telegram channel Nexta to mobilize protesters during the mass demonstrations in Belarus last year, was removed from the plane in Minsk along with his girlfriend.

He is wanted on terrorism charges.

Passengers on the Ryanair flight reported that Protasevich was visibly panicked and told others onboard that he could face execution in Belarus.

Belarusian authorities later granted the flight permission to continue to Vilnius.

The incident sparked outrage from the United States, the EU and Nato on Monday.

European Council president Charles Michel described Belarus’ actions as an “international scandal.”

“The lives of European civilians were at risk yesterday, this is not acceptable and is why we will put the debate of sanctions on the table,” he said as he arrived at a Council meeting in Brussels.

A spokesperson for the Belarusian foreign ministry said the plane diversion “complied fully” with international law.

Arriving at a European Council summit in Brussels on Monday evening, European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen said a 3 billion-euro investment package would be withheld as long as Belarus remains undemocratic.

Several EU leaders, including German chancellor Angela Merkel, have called on the bloc to impose tough sanctions on Lukashenko.

Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary told Irish radio show NewsTalk that the incident was a case of “state-sponsored piracy” and that the company believed “some KGB agents” were offloaded from the plane in Minsk.

The British government on Monday banned Belarus’ Belavia airline from operating in the United Kingdom and requested British flights to avoid Belarusian air space.

Protasevich became a well-known opposition activist 10 years ago at the age of 16 when he was arrested for organizing online protests against the country’s long-serving president Alexander Lukashenko.

In power since 1994, Lukashenko claimed victory in the presidential elections of August 2020, polls that opposition activists said were fraudulent.

The election campaign and aftermath sparked the largest demonstrations in the country’s history.

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