The UK has joined a number of other countries in instructing airlines to avoid Belarusian airspace after a commercial flight was intercepted by a fighter jet and diverted to the country to arrest a journalist.
Transport secretary Grant Shapps tweeted that he had instructed the UK’s Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) to ask planes to steer clear.
He added that he had also suspended Belarusian carrier Belavia’s operating license.
The UK has also summoned the eastern European nation’s ambassador to explain the incident amid a tide of outrage over the “hijacking”.
“We have summoned the Belarusian ambassador, the minister for the European neighbourhood is conveying our condemnation of these acts as we speak,” foreign secretary Dominic Raab told parliament.
The Ryanair plane, which was bound for Lithuania, was forced to land in Minsk on Sunday after Belarus claimed a bomb threat to the aircraft.
Belarusian journalist and activist Roman Protasevich, a former editor of the Telegram channel Nexta and Nexta Live, was then arrested.
Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary called the geopolitical turmoil thaat played out on his airline a “state-sponsored hijacking”,
“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.
Belarus state media claimed President Alexander Lukashenko had personally given the order following the false bomb threat. Since winning a disputed election last summer, Lukashenko has cracked down on dissenting voices.
Foreign affairs select committee chair Tom Tugendhat went further, asking the government to call for a suspension of energy pipelines to the country.
“Will he also go one step further and will he call for a suspension of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline and the Yamal energy pipeline that flows through Belarus which is where the money comes from that supports this tyrannous regime?”, he asked.
European leaders agree to impose further sanctions
The move has drawn widespread condemnation across Europe with calls for an international investigation.
EU leaders this evening agreed to impose new sanctions on Belarus, including economic punishments, in response to the action.
They demanded the immediate release of dissident Protasevich and girlfriend Sofia Sapega, as well as an investigation into the “hijacking”.
“In carrying out this coercive act, the Belarusian authorities have jeopardised the safety of passengers and crew,” the EU’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said in a statement this morning.
“An international investigation into this incident must be carried out to ascertain any breach of international aviation rules.”
Latvia and Lithuania said the airspace over Belarus should be considered unsafe and Latvia’s foreign minister Edgars Rinkevics has said it should be closed to all international flights.
Simon Coveney, foreign minister of Ireland, where Ryanair is based, said on Twitter: “EU inaction or indecision will be taken as weakness by Belarus.”
In a statement, the airline said: “Ryanair condemns the unlawful actions of Belarusian authorities who diverted Ryanair’s flight FR4978 to Minsk yesterday, which was an act of aviation piracy.”
It added that the matter was now being dealt with by the EU and NATO, and it could not comment further for security issues.
UK and US leaders weigh in
UK foreign secretary Dominic Raab said he was “alarmed” by the reports: “We are coordinating with our allies. This outlandish action by Lukashenko will have serious implications,” he tweeted last night.
The head of the foreign affairs committee Tom Tugendhat echoed this sentiment, calling it an action of “air piracy” and “kidnapping”.
The US also expressed outrage at the detainment of Protasevich. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the Biden administration was “co-ordinating with our partners on the next steps” after the “shocking act”.
The US “strongly condemns the forced diversion of a flight between two EU member states and the subsequent removal and arrest of journalist Raman Pratasevich in Minsk. We demand his immediate release,” he said.
“This shocking act perpetrated by the Lukashenka regime endangered the lives of more than 120 passengers, including US citizens,” he added. “Initial reports suggesting the involvement of the Belarusian security services and the use of Belarusian military aircraft to escort the plane are deeply concerning and require full investigation”.
The US and EU, along with Britain and Canada, have already imposed asset freezes and travel bans on almost 90 Belarusian officials, including Lukashenko, following the August election.