Belarusian authorities scrambled a fighter jet and flagged what turned out to be a false bomb alert to force a Ryanair aircraft to land on Sunday to detain opposition journalist Roman Protasevich, who was onboard.
Fury over the forced landing of a Ryanair plane in Belarus has upended the agenda of a European Union summit, where leaders were due to discuss relations with Russia and Britain but will now also consider punitive steps against Minsk.
Belarusian authorities scrambled a fighter jet and flagged what turned out to be a false bomb alert to force the civilian aircraft to land on Sunday and then detained opposition journalist, Roman Protasevich, who was among the passengers on board.
The diversion of a plane owned by an EU company that was flying between two EU capitals was "an inadmissible step", the bloc's foreign policy chief said, and it would be raised at the summit.
"The EU will consider the consequences of this action, including taking measures against those responsible," Josep Borrell said in a statement on Monday.
The president of the 27-nation EU's executive, Ursula von der Leyen, tweeted on Sunday that "the outrageous and illegal behaviour of the regime in Belarus will have consequences".
We hold the government of Belarus responsable for the security of all passengers and the aircraft.— Josep Borrell Fontelles (@JosepBorrellF) May 23, 2021
ALL passengers must be able to continue their travel immediately. (2/2)
The outrageous and illegal behaviour of the regime in Belarus will have consequences.— Ursula von der Leyen (@vonderleyen) May 23, 2021
Those responsible for the #Ryanair hijacking must be sanctioned.
Journalist Roman Protasevich must be released immediately.
EUCO will discuss tomorrow action to take.
Sanctions, ties with Moscow
The EU has already imposed three rounds of sanctions on Belarus in response to last year's contested presidential election there, and even before the Ryanair incident had been working on a fourth round targeting senior officials.
Additional sanctions could now include suspending overflights of all EU airlines over Belarus, banning Belarusian airline Belavia from landing at EU airports or suspending all transit, including ground transit, from Belarus to the EU, according to an official for the bloc.
Borrell also said that an international investigation into the aircraft incident "must be carried out to ascertain any breach of international aviation rules".
Outrage over the Belarus incident will likely spill over into the discussion the leaders were due to have on Monday about where to take their relationship with Moscow, which has long stood behind Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko.
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.
On the other hand, the Belarusian foreign ministry said on Monday that Minsk would be ready to let experts visit if needed for an investigation into the diversion of a passenger plane that has sparked an outcry, and to show them data, the RIA news agency reported.
All flights over Belarus must cease after 'air piracy'
The chairman of the British parliament's foreign affairs committee called on Monday for all civilian airlines to cease flying over Belarus after what he said was an act of air piracy by Lukashenko.
"We need to stop any aircraft overflying Belarus," Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Tom Tugendhat told Times Radio.
"This is an act of air-piracy, combined with hijacking, and eventually linked to kidnapping."
Tugendhat said fresh sanctions should to be imposed. "The next thing we need to do is we need to put very strict sanctions on the Lukashenko regime," he said.
Ryanair CEO says Belarus plane grounding 'state-sponsored piracy'
A decision by authorities in Belarus to force a Ryanair jet to land in Minsk on Sunday and detain a dissident journalist was a "state-sponsored hijacking", Ryanair Chief Executive Michael O'Leary said.
"This was a case of state-sponsored hijacking ... state-sponsored piracy," O'Leary told Irish Newstalk radio.
"It appears the intent of the authorities was to remove a journalist and his travelling companion ... we believe there were some KGB agents offloaded at the airport as well," he said.