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E.U. promises swift retaliation after Belarus forces airliner to land, detains dissident


RIGA, Latvia - Belarus on Monday was facing international isolation, with European leaders discussing measures to deal a crushing blow to the economy and the White House calling for an investigation, a day after Belarusian authorities forced down a civilian jet and pulled off a dissident journalist.

Outrage mounted about the brazen move by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, who on Sunday sent a MiG-29 fighter jet to snatch a Ryanair plane out of the sky as it was flying from Athens to Vilnius, Lithuania, and arrest one of its passengers, Roman Protasevich, the founder of an opposition media outlet. Protasevich faces 12 years or more in prison.

The power play set a fearsome precedent for journalists and political opponents, who must now worry about flying through the airspace of repressive regimes, even if they are moving from one free capital to another.

The move was a "brazen affront to international peace," White House press secretary Jen Psaki said, saying that the Biden administration is demanding an international investigation.

The United States condemns Lukashenko's "regime" for "ongoing harassment and arbitrary detention of journalists simply for doing their job," she said at a White House briefing.

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg told CNN the safety of flight paths over Belarus should be assessed. Britain, Ukraine, Lithuania and Latvia all asked commercial air traffic to avoid Belarusian airspace, to protect their citizens from what some officials called state-sponsored hijacking.

And E.U. leaders were discussing economic retaliation against Belarus at a prescheduled summit in Brussels on Monday. Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics said in an interview with The Washington Post that he and others would seek "harsh economic sanctions," far beyond measures currently in place, in a bid to isolate Lukashenko and starve his regime of funds.

"Yesterday I think was the test of the West," Rinkevics said. "But it was also a show of force and confidence to his own people and the opposition: 'Look, I can come and get you anyway.' This is an inter-European flight, from Athens to Vilnius, with a European company performing the flight, with a person who is under European protection because he is an opposition activist. This is a direct attack against Europe."

Lithuanian authorities have taken the lead on the investigation into the incident, interviewing the Ryanair crew to try to understand the sequence of events that forced them to make a steep bank turn within minutes of the Vilnius airport, which is just over the border from Belarus. The Lithuanians are also trying to verify the identity of three passengers who stayed behind in Minsk along with Protasevich and a woman reported to be his girlfriend, both of whom were forced to remain in Belarus. A spokeswoman for the prosecutor general's office, Elena Martinoniene, said that 126 people were aboard the plane when it departed from Athens, but 121 people landed in Vilnius.

Verifying the identity of the passengers could help Western officials understand whether Belarus pulled off the operation itself, or whether it had help from Russia, a possibility some officials were not ruling out on Monday.

"This was a major operation. These were skilled professionals, skilled guys on board," a senior European official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the details of the investigation.

British Transport Secretary Grant Shapps instructed his country's civilian aviation authority to ask U.K. airlines to avoid Belarusian airspace "to keep passengers safe," he wrote on Twitter. He said he had suspended permits for Belavia, Belarus's national carrier, to operate in Britain.

The Ukrainian ban on flights to Belarus and on Ukrainian-registered aircraft from flying above Belarus was also likely to have a significant impact on regional passenger traffic as well, since Belarus became the main air corridor between Ukraine and Russia after direct flights between those countries were cut off after hostilities began in 2014.

E.U. leaders converging on Brussels for a pre-scheduled summit on Monday were considering multiple responses, including banning Belavia flights and declaring Belarus's airspace unsafe, according to diplomats and other officials involved in the discussions. Economic sanctions could include full-scale bans on doing business with Belarus's biggest companies, state-owned operations that are crucial to keeping Lukashenko afloat.

All explanations for the forced landing of the plane other than to detain Protesevich "are completely implausible," German Chancellor Angela Merkel told reporters on her way into the meeting, saying that there would "certainly" be new sanctions.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen called the forcing down of the plane "outrageous behavior" and said that what happened was a "hijacking."

Fresh accounts of what happened were still surfacing on Monday.

People on the flight told Lithuanian media that they had the sensation of a sudden evasive maneuver - a loop that reversed the plane's course and sent it on a path toward Minsk. Some thought it was because of weather.

Belarusian authorities appear to have engineered a false bomb threat against the airplane.

"It was intercepted, there was effectively warning given to the pilots and crew that there was a security risk on board, and then the plane was escorted by military jet to the Minsk airport, which was not the closest airport," Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney told Ireland's RTE radio on Monday.

Passengers who were sitting close to Protasevich said he became intensely anxious as he realized that the plane was landing in the Belarusian capital, where the plane was surrounded with police, military vehicles and firefighters.

"It was obvious that he was beginning to panic," Marius Rutkauskas, a passenger sitting in the row ahead of Protasevich, told Lithuania's LRT broadcaster. "He said, 'the death penalty awaits me in Belarus.'"

Authorities came aboard the aircraft and took Protasevich off first, witnesses said. Then they commanded everyone to disembark. Passengers were searched and held for hours before they were allowed back on the plane - without Protasevich or Sofia Sapega, a Russian citizen studying at the European Humanities University in Vilnius and who some news accounts identified as his girlfriend. The university said in a statement Monday that she had also been detained and called for her release.

Coveney called the incident "aviation piracy" and said only one or two people were actually arrested from the plane, but five or six stayed on the ground in Belarus. "So that certainly would suggest that a number of other people who left the plane were secret service," he said. "We don't know from what country, but clearly linked to the Belarusian regime."

In a statement posted on the Belarusian Foreign Ministry's website, spokesman Anatoly Glaz said Belarus would "guarantee full transparency" and is open to receiving experts and presenting materials on what happened.

There is "no doubt that the actions of our competent authorities were also in full compliance with the established international rules," he said, criticizing the "openly bellicose" statements from European leaders.

Later on Monday, a Belarusian official appeared on state television to read out what he said was the threat they had received to the safety of the plane, which he said was from "Hamas soldiers" demanding an Israeli cease-fire in Gaza. European officials gave little credibility to the announcement from Artem Sikorsky, the director of the Aviation Department of the Ministry of Transport and Communications.

Lukashenko has already waged a campaign of violence and repression for months, following August elections in which he arrested most of his opponents, then, according to Western observers, falsified results to produce a crushing victory against the lone remaining candidate.

Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the candidate, fled into exile in Lithuania. It was her visit to Athens last week that brought Protasevich to Greece from Vilnius, where he also lives in exile.

The European Union imposed sanctions following the election and the crackdown. But Sunday's actions - which European officials said they were certain had been approved by Lukashenko - crossed a new line. There appeared to be little precedent for a nation-state to use its military to force down a commercial flight for political ends.

Ryanair CEO Michael O'Leary called the situation a "state-sponsored hijacking," and told Ireland's new radio on Monday that Belarusian authorities had appeared intent on removing Protasevich and his traveling companion, who Belarusian opposition media said was his girlfriend.

"We believe there were some KGB agents offloaded at the airport as well," O'Leary said, without explaining how he knew that. Belarus's feared security service is still known by its old Soviet abbreviation, unlike Russia's.

But despite his concern, Ryanair continued to fly over Belarusian airspace on Monday, with a flight from Cyprus to Estonia entering Belarusian territory even though several other airlines rerouted away from the country.

A spokesman for the airline did not immediately reply to a request for comment.

Lukashenko has been Belarus's heavy-handed ruler since 1994. Protasevich became his enemy for helping to organize the protests against his widely doubted election win.

Analysts said the situation could drive the Belarusian leader closer to the Kremlin, with which he has long had an up-and-down relationship. The Kremlin has long pushed for the two countries to form a unified state - something they agreed to in 1999 but have not fully implemented, in part because Lukashenko has dragged his feet.

Now the economy may be left without alternatives. As Lukashenko has cracked down on all forms of opposition, including media, he has been emboldened by Russia's support. Although the E.U. has already sanctioned Lukashenko and other Belarusian officials, Minsk is dependent on Moscow, which issued a $1 billion loan to Belarus in December.

"I would assume that in this circumstance, Russia will help, and Lukashenko relies on Russia to help," said Artyom Shraibman of Sense Analytics, a Minsk-based political consultancy. "He's now a very anti-Western actor, and he thinks that these anti-Western actions must be rewarded or covered up by Moscow."

Russian President Vladimir Putin is scheduled to meet with Lukashenko in the Black Sea resort city of Sochi this week.

A spokeswoman for the Russian Foreign Ministry, Maria Zakharova, said that "what's shocking is that the West calls the incident in the airspace of Belarus 'shocking.'" In a statement on Facebook, she listed other aviation incidents that she said drew a muted response.

The Kremlin declined to comment.

Protasevich's Nexta and Nexta Live channels on Telegram, a popular social media and messaging app, became a main source for news during the demonstrations as Belarusian authorities often moved to shutter Internet and mobile service. Telegram continued to work during the outages, and Nexta, then run by Protasevich, became a resource for where, when and how to protest. It went on to expose police brutality against protesters.

In November, Belarus placed Protasevich and Nexta's founder, Stepan Putilo, on a terrorist watch list, charging him with three protest-related crimes that could land him in prison for more than 12 years. Protasevich and Putilo were the only Belarusian citizens on the list at the time.

Franak Viacorka, an adviser to Tikhanovskaya, said on Twitter that he and the former opposition candidate took the same Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius just a week earlier.

"We were lucky we got to Vilnius safely," he said. "After [Sunday's] incident, Belarusian airspace must be closed for international flights, the perpetrators - brought to justice."

A number of Russian officials praised the move. Lawmaker Vyacheslav Lysakov wrote on his Telegram that it was a "brilliant special operation" by Belarus's state security services. Kremlin propagandist Margarita Simonyan, the editor in chief of the government-funded TV channel RT, formerly Russia Today, said on Twitter that Lukashenko "performed beautifully," adding that she is envious of Belarus.

Published : May 25, 2021

By : The Washington Post · Michael Birnbaum, Isabelle Khurshudyan