European leaders will discuss whether to place sanctions on Belarus after a journalist opposing president Alexander Lukashenko was detained when a Ryanair flight was forced to land in Belarusian capital Minsk.
UK foreign secretary Dominic Raab hinted at joint action with the EU, as leaders from the 27-nation bloc prepare to hold emergency talks to discuss the situation.
Mr Raab said he was working with allies on a “coordinated response, including further sanctions” – saying the Belarusian leader must be held to account for his “outlandish actions”.
Ireland’s foreign minister Simon Coveney condemned the arrest of journalist Roman Protasevich as “piracy”, suggesting he would support sanctions.
Nato ambassadors will also discuss the forced landing of a Ryanair plane in Minsk on Tuesday, an official with the Western military alliance said.
EU leaders opened a two-day summit on Monday, and Sunday’s dramatic Ryanir flight diversion immediately shot to the top the agenda.
EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen said: “The outrageous and illegal behaviour of the regime in Belarus will have consequences. Those responsible for the Ryanair hijacking must be sanctioned.”
The EU’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell called it the diversion of the flight an “inadmissible step,” while Swedish foreign minister Ann Linde said: “It is dangerous, reckless and naturally the EU is going to act.”
Mr Protasevich was on board the flight from Athens to Lithuanian capital Vilnius when it changed course to head for Minsk after an alleged bomb scare.
The airline said Belarusian flight controllers told the crew there was a bomb threat as it was crossing through the country’s airspace and ordered it to land in Minsk. The journalist was then pulled off the flight and detained.
Mr Raab said: “The UK condemns yesterday’s actions by the Belarusian authorities, who arrested journalist Roman Protasevich on the basis of a ruse, having forced his flight to land in Minsk.
“Mr Lukashenko must be held to account for his outlandish actions. The UK calls for the immediate release of Mr Protasevich and other political prisoners held in Belarus.”
Mr Raab also called on the International Civil Aviation Organisation’s council to hold an urgent meeting to consider the Belarusian regime’s actions.
His Irish counterpart suggested he supported “very strong” sanctions – including the idea of stopping flights from Belarusian airspace.
Mr Coveney told RTE: “The EU has to give a very clear response to this, otherwise we’re giving all the wrong signals.”
The Irish minister added: “I think the sanctions need to be fully thought through in terms of consequences, but I think this is an incident that is on the upper end of the scale in terms of something that needs a very strong sanction-based response.”
In a joint statement, the chairs of parliamentary foreign affairs committees in the UK, US, Ireland, Lithuania, Germany, Czech Republic, Poland, Estonia and Latvia condemned what they called an “act of state terror”.
EU member state Lithuania – where Mr Protasevich is based – urged both the EU and Nato to respond. Nato’s secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg said in a tweet that the incident was serious and required an international investigation.
The Belarusian foreign ministry on Monday bristled at what it described as “belligerent” EU statements on Monday – insisting that the country’s authorities acted “in full conformity with international rules”.
Labour’s foreign secretary Lisa Nandy said the Belarusian ambassador in London should be summoned to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
She said the incident was “appalling”, telling Times Radio: “If I were the foreign secretary today I would be demanding that the ambassador comes to see me in order to demand the release of Roman Protasevich, the journalist who was arrested.”
Ms Nandy also said the UK should consider blocking flights from Belarusian airlines. “There has got to be repercussions for this because as I said earlier it tears up the international rules. It just simply cannot be allowed to stand,” she said.
The influential Conservative MP Tom Tugendhat, the Foreign Affairs Committee chairman, said “very strict” sanctions need to be put on the Lukashenko regime and flights over Belarus should be suspended because of safety fears.