MEPs unite in call on Commission, Council to suspend flights over Belarus airspace

Members of the European Parliament call on the European Council and Commission to suspend flights over Belarusian airspace

Aircraft tracking website Flight Radar 24 showing how the Ryanair flight was diverted from its path to make an 'emergency' landing in Minsk
Aircraft tracking website Flight Radar 24 showing how the Ryanair flight was diverted from its path to make an 'emergency' landing in Minsk

Members of the European Parliament from various political groups, led by the EP’s Media Working Group, co-Chaired by Maltese Nationalist MEP David Casa, have called on the European Council and Commission to suspend flights over Belarusian airspace, suspend all air connections, and to start a full inquiry into breaches of international aviation rules.

The call comes in the wake of sensational accusations that the Belarusian government orchestrated a hijacking and an act of state terrorism by forcing a Ryanair flight into an emergency landing in Minsk after a fictitious bomb threat, and instead arresting a journalist critical of authoritarian president Alexander Lukashenko when it landed.

The MEPs' call came in the form of a strongly-worded letter - one of several European diplomatic, or not so diplomatic, broadsides being launched against the authoritarian regime since the incident on Sunday.

On Sunday, Belarusian journalist Roman Protasevich and his partner Sofia Sapega were taken off the flight only to be detained in Minsk before the plane was allowed to resume its flight. Protasevich is wanted by the Belarusian regime for organising last year’s protests against strongman Alexander Lukashenko.

The Ryanair flight from Greece to Lithuania had been diverted to a Minsk airport for several hours on Sunday, just before it had reached the Belarusian border. Belarus media said a MiG-29 escorted the jet to Minsk apparently because of a bomb scare, but no explosives were found. The plane finally landed in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius, its original destination, more than seven hours after its scheduled arrival, without Protasevich aboard.

Today’s European Council should ‘take concrete action against illegitimate regime’ - Casa

“What happened yesterday is outrageous,” Casa, Quaestor of the European Parliament, said. “Today’s European Council should take concrete action against the illegitimate regime of Aleksander Lukashenko. What we saw yesterday is state-sponsored terrorism: a hijack of a flight between an EU capital to another EU capital, so that a journalist and his partner are arrested. Both should be released from Belarus as soon as possible.”

In their letter to the European Council President, to the European Commission President, to the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, and to the European Commissioner for Transport, the Members of the European Parliament called for strong action. “This act of state-sponsored terrorism has brutally attacked the European Union, jeopardising the safety of the passengers and crew. This must be addressed with a strong and united European response.”

Casa, together with the other MEPs, insisted on extended sanctions towards Lukashenko personally, as well as towards all those responsible for these acts. “It is high time that the EU walked the talk. I expect concrete actions taken by the Heads of State and Governments during today’s meeting in Brussels. We should be united against illegitimate regimes and in protecting journalists.”

‘He's gambling we won't walk the talk, we must prove him wrong’ – Metsola

On Twitter, European Parliament Vice President Roberta Metsola called for immediate action: “Lukashenka is testing the resolve of the EU & the International Community. He's gambling that we won't walk the talk. We must prove him wrong.

“This shocking hijacking must be the last line he crosses. Europe must stand up. For Roman Protasevich, for #Belarus, for us all #EUCO [European Commission].”

Metsola called on the Commission to take action today, saying, “The #EUCO tomorrow [Monday] must deliver. Europe must act as one. Unambiguously.

“The EU must be united in facing down an illegitimate regime responsible for outrageous, illegal, acts. We must stand for Roman Protasevich & any other dissidents who deserve to feel & be safe in our Union.”

The call is likely to be met when the Commission meets, with EC President Ursula von der Leyen having expressed similar shock at the events unfolding on an EU flight over EU airspace: “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 [Monday] action to take.”

On Monday afternoon EU leaders convene in Brussels for a scheduled meeting, but the agenda has changed and the Belarusian incident is expected to get top billing.

EPP chair Manfred Weber, meanwhile, described Monday’s incident as an “unforgivable act of state terrorism.” He added, “Dictator #Lukashenko hijacked a civilian #Ryanair airplane travelling between two EU Member States & NATO allies. We must react immediately and firmly. Additional sanctions should be considered at #EUCO.”

European Parliament President David Sassoli, meanwhile, also called for explanations, and for Protasevich’s immediate release.

There have already also been calls for the EU and NATO to intervene.

Unacceptable and unprecedented – Foreign Minister Evarist Bartolo

Malta’s Foreign Minister Evarist Bartolo said the situation was “unacceptable and unprecedented.” 

“To force a landing of a commercial flight between two European cities, and jeopardise the safety of passengers in such way. The safety of all passengers and crew must be ensured,” Bartolo said. 

UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab warned the “outlandish action” would have “serious implications”.

Belarus opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who was beaten by Alexander Lukashenko in presidential polls last year widely denounced as rigged, was among those demanding Protasevich's release.

In a statement, Ryanair said that the crew had been “notified by Belarus of a potential security threat on board and were instructed to divert to the nearest airport, Minsk”.

Ryanair said checks in Minsk found “nothing untoward”, and the aircraft left Minsk at 8:50pm. 

“We apologise sincerely to all affected passengers for this regrettable delay which was outside Ryanair's control,” the airline said. 

European Council chairman Charles Michel said EU leaders would discuss “this unprecedented incident” later on Monday at a Council summit, and it would not “remain without consequences”.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said this was a “serious and dangerous incident”.

Outrageous violation of international law and an act of state-backed terrorism - EPP

The European Peoples’ Party added to Weber’s earlier statement, and turned it up a notch, saying, “In the light of the outrageous hijacking, the EPP Group urges the governments of EU Member States to act in unity and with determination towards the regime in Minsk. We call for the establishment of a no-flight zone over Belarus, the adoption of the 4th package of sanctions and an immediate and unconditional release of Roman Protasevich and his partner.

"The hijacking of an EU flight by the Lukashenko regime is an outrageous violation of international law and an act of state-backed terrorism. A line has been crossed! Our governments must act now and take bold decision with regard to Lukashenka’s regime at today’s European Summit. Not only is the live of Roman Protasevich at stake, but also the credibility of the whole EU. Those Member States' governments, which obstruct joint EU action act as agents of the dictator," insisted Sandra Kalniete MEP, EPP Group Vice-Chairwoman in charge of Foreign Affairs.

“It is clear now that Belarusian airspace is not safe. This outrageous illegal incident must have strong consequences. No flights to Belarus, no flights from Belarus, no flights over Belarus. This must be the EU’s answer,” added Marian-Jean Marinescu MEP, EPP Group spokesman on Transport.

The EPP Group has requested an urgent debate at the next meeting of Parliament’s Committee of Foreign Affairs.

End the dictatorship - PN

The Nationalist Party has expressed its concern and condemnation at the latest "grave act against journalist Roman Protasevich". It reiterated its condemnation of the incident and said it hopes that steps will be taken to bring democracy back to Belarus and end “the present dictatorship.

“This most egregious abuse because it attacks the freedom of expression and must certainly be condemned and followed up by adequate measures to ensure such action is not repeated.”

Ewropej Funded by the European Union

This article is part of a content series called Ewropej. This is a multi-newsroom initiative part-funded by the European Parliament to bring the work of the EP closer to the citizens of Malta and keep them informed about matters that affect their daily lives. This article reflects only the author’s view. The European Parliament is not responsible for any use that may be made of the information it contains.

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