European Union (EU) leaders are threatening sanctions after Belarus diverted a passenger flight with a journalist onboard, The Associated Press reported Monday.
Belarusian air traffic control informed the Ryanair passenger flight, operating a service between Athens, Greece, and Vilnius, Lithuania, of a bomb threat while flying over Belarus, the AP reported.
Escorted by a Belarusian MiG-29 fighter jet, the aircraft was diverted to Minsk, the capital of Belarus. The aircraft was then searched while Raman Pratasevich, a journalist and activist, was escorted off the aircraft along with his Russian girlfriend, according to the AP.
Pratasevich co-founded a channel called Nexta on Telegram, a messaging app he and others use to organize protests against Lukashenko. He was arrested upon landing and could face 15 years in prison on charges of inciting riots, the AP reported.
The BBC reported that passengers onboard faced an intense situation. One described “a sudden dive” and the pilot “changing the altitude very drastically.”
“It was very violent,” the passenger continued, according to the BBC. “I’ve never felt this on an airplane. Everybody was in shock.”
WATCH: A Belarusian journalist has been detained by police after the commercial passenger aircraft in which he was traveling from Greece to Lithuania was diverted to Minsk due to a purported bomb threat. pic.twitter.com/08t1TQ9aiB
— Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (@RFERL) May 23, 2021
EU leaders were quick to condemn the action by the Belarusian government, with EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen describing the event as a “hijacking.”
Josep Borrell, the EU foreign policy chief, reportedly said the event was “yet another blatant attempt by the Belarusian authorities to silence all opposition voices.”
There was also a reported strong condemnation from leaders of Ireland, an EU member and where Ryanair is headquartered.
Irish Prime Minister Michael Martin told state broadcaster RTE that the diversion “reflects growing authoritarianism across the world.”
France 24 reported that Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney told RTE that he thinks “there has to be real edge to the sanctions that are applied on the back of this” before calling the event “aviation piracy.”
The outrageous and illegal behaviour of the regime in Belarus will have consequences.
Those responsible for the #Ryanair hijacking must be sanctioned.
Journalist Roman Protasevich must be released immediately.
EUCO will discuss tomorrow action to take.
— Ursula von der Leyen (@vonderleyen) May 23, 2021
The Belarusian Foreign Ministry claims that the diversion was “in full conformity with international rules” before calling EU statements “belligerent,” the AP reported.
Belarus, run for over 26 years by President Alexander Lukashenko, has experienced months of protests over claims of a rigged election with the government making arrests and using stun grenades to quell the demonstrations. (RELATED: Belarusian Government Accused Of Letting COVID-19 Spread In Prisons Packed With Its President’s Critics)
Our updated statement regarding yesterday’s (23 May) diversion of FR4978. pic.twitter.com/BANHrDvXMq
— Ryanair Press Office (@RyanairPress) May 24, 2021
Like Belarus, the airline company Ryanair also received criticism.