Estonia calls for action after Belarus diverts plane and arrests journalist

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The Belarusian embassy in Tallinn, Estonia. Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

Estonian politicians are demanding strong action after the Belarusian government diverted a Vilnius-bound commercial plane to arrest an opposition journalist on Sunday (May 23) afternoon.

Belarusian opposition activist and blogger Roman Protasevich, 26, was onboard the Ryanair FR4978 flight with 170 other passengers traveling between Greece and Lithuania and was arrested upon landing in Minsk.

The plane had been flying over Belarusian airspace but was forced to turn back before crossing the Lithuanian border and was escorted to Minsk Aiport by Belarusian military aircraft. It was initially reported a bomb threat had been made but the Belarusian authorities found no trace of explosives when the plane was searched.

Lithuania's national broadcaster LRT reported that Protasevich fled Belarus in 2019 and was active in reporting on the 2020 presidential election on his Nexta channel on Telegram used by the country's opposition. The Belarusian security service, KGB, has listed him as a terrorist.

Asta Skaisgiryte, chief foreign policy adviser to the Lithuanian president, said Belarus used two military aircraft, a MiG-29 fighter jet and a Mi-24 helicopter, in the operation, which was likely staged by the Belarusian KGB.

The Ryanair FR4978 flight's path to Minsk Airport. Source: Flightradar.

On Sunday evening, Estonian politicians condemned Belarus' actions, called for severe consequences and for the plane's passengers to be released. The plane eventually arrived at Vilnius Airport on Sunday evening just after 9 p.m. but six passengers did not complete the journey.

Prime Minister Kaja Kallas (Reform) wrote on Twitter that the move was "absolutely inexplicable" and said the "EU must take a stand together".

Writing on her Facebook page she said there must be consequences as this was not just a threat to civil aviation but a kidnapping orchestrated by the state.

Minister of Foreign Affairs Eva-Maria Liimets (Center) called the news "very worrisome". The Ministry of Foreign Affairs said it was a "shocking act" and called for an investigation.

Head of the Riigikogu's Foreign Affairs Committee Marko Mihkelson (Reform) said the action was "state terrorism" and said the EU must react. He said the issue should be raised by NATO as this was a threat to the security of international airspace.

Mihkelson also signed a joint statement with national chairs of foreign affairs committees from Ireland, the United States, Germany, the UK, Poland, the Czech Republic, Lithuania and Latvia.

The statement condemned "unequivocally the threat of violence used against a civilian aircraft in the skies over Belarus" and said "using a fighter aircraft to intercept a civilian Ryanair flight is an act of piracy."

"This act of state terror and kidnapping is a threat to all those who travel in Europe and beyond. It cannot be allowed to stand," it said.  

MEP, vice chairman of the European Parliament Committee on Foreign Affairs former and former foreign minister Urmas Paet (Reform) said EU airspace should be closed to flights from Belarusian-owned companies. He said a clear message had been sent that flying in Belarusian airspace is not safe as the regime does not respect international agreements.

He also said all contact should be suspended with President Alexander Lukashenko's regime and questioned why EU leaders were not meeting immediately to discuss the issue.

Former President Toomas Hendrik Ilves called for EU counties to suspend flights with Belarus' national airline Belavia which flies to all three Baltic states, Poland, Germany and France among others.

Former minister of foreign affairs Urmas Reinsalu (Isamaa) said there must be severe consequences for the kidnapping and hijacking of a plane by the Lukashenko regime. He also said it was "state-sponsored terror".

"Estonia, as an elected member of the UN Security Council from Eastern Europe, must raise the issue in the Security Council," Reinsalu wrote on Facebook.

On Monday, the presidents of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania agreed to demand the release of arrested journalist Roman Protasevich and condemned the forced landing of a passenger plane in Minsk by the Belarus regime.

A meeting of the European Union heads of state will be held on Monday to discuss the union's response.

"Those responsible for the Ryanair hijacking must be sanctioned. Journalist Roman Protasevich must be released immediately," Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission wrote on social media.

LRT reported on Sunday evening that Lithuania's prosecutors have launched a probe into the "hijacking".

"A pre-trial investigation into aircraft hijacking and prohibited treatment of people under international law has been launched," Elena Martinonienė, head of communications at the General Prosecutor's Office, told BNS on Sunday.

On Monday, Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics told Latvian Television that airlines should stop using the airspace above Belarus, among other steps to be taken, national broadcaster LSM reported.

The minister said the first step would be broader sectoral economic sanctions, the second step - to stop using Belarusian airspace for international flights, but the third step could be to stop servicing and hosting Belarusian airlines, particularly the national airline Belavia.

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Editor: Helen Wright

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