Incident comes as Europe increases energy dependence on Russia, a key Belarusian ally.
The former Soviet republic of Belarus is accused of ” hijacking” a European passenger liner to arrest a dissident journalist.
On Sunday, the Belarusian air force compelled a flight from Greece to Lithuania to land in its capital city of Minsk to arrest Roman Protasevich, a pro-democracy activist living in exile.
The wanted dissident “was on a flight from Greece which was rerouted to Minsk on Sunday over a supposed bomb threat,” the BBC reported. He is expected to face torture and a long prison sentence, news reports suggest.
The operation was executed by the Belarusian security service KGB. “Ryanair’s chief executive has said he believes that agents of the Belarusian KGB were travelling on the plane,” the UK newspaper Guardian reported.
The 26-year old journalist and blogger angered the Belarusian regime by posting the footage of pro-democracy protests triggered after the August 2020 election. Nationwide protests erupted after the country’s de facto dictator Alexander Lukashenko declared himself the winner of the presidential election for the sixth time in a row amid allegations of widespread voting fraud.
Lukashenko, a close ally of neighboring Russia, is working with President Putin to merge Belarus with Russia to create the so-called Russian-Belarus Union State.
The Associated Press on Monday reported the incident:
A prominent opponent of Belarus’ authoritarian president was arrested Sunday after the airliner in which he was traveling was diverted to the country after a bomb threat, in what the opposition and Western officials denounced as a hijacking operation by the government.
Raman Pratasevich, who faces charges that could bring 15 years in prison, was aboard the Ryanair flight from Athens, Greece, to the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius when it changed course to head for Minsk. (…)
Flight tracker sites indicated the plane was about 10 kilometers (six miles) from the Lithuanian border when it was diverted. There were conflicting accounts of the move.
The press service of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko said the president himself ordered that a MiG-29 fighter jet accompany the airliner after he was informed of the bomb threat. Deputy air force commander Andrei Gurtsevich said the plane’s crew made the decision to land in Minsk.
The arrest of the prominent dissident is expected to widen the growing rift between the Russian ally Belarus and the West.
The European Union imposed new sanctions on the regime following the alleged hijacking. The Biden White House also condemned the incident.
The German public broadcaster Deutsche Welle on Tuesday reported the European reaction:
Several European airlines announced on Tuesday that they are suspending flights over Belarus after Minsk forced a Ryanair jet to land to arrest a dissident journalist.
European Union leaders had urged airlines to avoid Belarus’ airspace as they imposed sanctions against the government of longtime leader Alexander Lukashenko.
Western leaders accused Belarusian authorities of hijacking the passenger plane during its flight on Sunday, while Minsk claimed it was trying to secure the jet after receiving a bomb threat. (…)
The EU has since banned Belarusian carriers from flying over the bloc’s airspace. The bloc also called for the release of Pratasevich.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg welcomed the EU sanctions, adding that the “forced landing of a passenger flight by Belarus was dangerous.” (…)
German Chancellor Angela Merkel described the Belarusian government’s account of the incident as “completely implausible.”
The Belarusian regime could not have carried out the provocative action without the tacit support from Moscow.
With plans for a Russian-Belarus Union State in progress, the tiny country is firmly in Moscow’s sphere of influence. “Our teams are continuing to work to develop the legislation for the union state,” Putin said in late April after meeting his Belarussian counterpart. “We are actively moving forward in union programs,” Lukashenko responded.
The incident comes as Europe is increasing its energy dependence on Moscow. Germany and Russia are close to completing the Nordstream 2 pipeline that will allow a direct supply of Russian gas to central Europe.
Former U.S. President Donald Trump had been opposed to the gas pipeline, calling Germany “captive” to the Kremlin in light of the project. However, Biden appears to be reversing that policy, waiving key sanctions on the Russo-German pipeline. Last week, the announcement was made ahead of the next month’s bilateral summit between President Biden and Putin in Geneva, Switzerland.DONATE
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