Belarus closing embassy as Canada PM condemns jetliner's diversion

Daniel Fowler
May 26, 2021

World leaders have condemned authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko for what many have described as a "hijacking", while the European Union imposed sanctions and US President Joe Biden described it as an "outrageous incident" and a "direct affront to global norms".

Protasevich appeared in a video posted online Monday, saying he was being held in a Minsk detention center, and confessing to having "organized mass unrest in the city of Minsk".

Belarusian dissident journalist Roman Protasevich was arrested on Sunday after Belarusian authorities diverted Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius of a possible bomb threat and forced it to land at an airport near Minsk.

Belarusian state media have reported that President Alexander Lukashenko personally ordered the flight to be intercepted.

The diversion and arrest elicited widespread shock and fury, and European Union leaders took unusually swift action in response at a summit Monday.

Two U.S. senators urged the Biden administration to prohibit U.S. airlines from entering Belarus airspace because of the incident.

Many European companies including Lufthansa, Air France and Finnair announced that they would be avoiding flying over Belarus for the time being.

Exiled Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya said the video of Pratasevich showed he had been tortured.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has deemed the event "state hijacking" and Ireland and France have characterized it as piracy amid mounting global outrage.

"This is a state hijacking and demonstrates how the regime in Minsk attacks basic democratic rights and cracks down on freedom of expression and independent media", he said, adding that an urgent worldwide investigation was needed.

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In his speech Wednesday, Lukashenko indicated the clips were mere teasers, and soon more "confessions" supposedly confirming the plot to destabilize Belarus would be published.

Ryanair's CEO, Michael O'Leary, on Monday condemned Belarus' actions, telling the Irish radio station NewsTalk "this was a case of state-sponsored hijacking".

Belarusian state television on Monday aired a video of Protasevich, seen for the first time since his arrest.

Some say more sanctions will do little to alleviate the situation and will only push Belarus even closer to its main sponsor and ally, Russia, and reduce the influence of the European Union and others.

Pratasevich, who left Belarus in 2019 and ran a popular messaging app that played a key role in helping organize huge protests against Lukashenko, has been charged in absentia with staging mass riots and fanning social hatred. Belarus accused Protasevich of terrorism and provoking riots a year ago.

The videos follow Belarusian authorities taking the extraordinary measure of diverting to Minsk a Ryanair flight carrying the couple on Sunday.

"Lukashenko will become an increasingly easy prey for the Kremlin", Alexander Klaskouski, an independent Minsk-based political analyst, told the Associated Press. He added that following Pratasevich's arrest, they have received a flow of new threats "that we are the next, that we will not be even taken to Belarus but will be executed right away, that our office will be blown up and we have to be afraid".

He is said to have volunteered as a photographer and worked in a press capacity for the organisation.

Lukashenko and his allies are already under a series of Western sanctions over a brutal crackdown on opposition protests that followed his disputed re-election to a sixth term last August.

But he has only doubled down on repression, and more than 35,000 people have been arrested since the protests began, with thousands beaten.

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