Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said he was “alarmed” by the “outlandish” action by Belarus as European leaders prepared to meet to discuss sanctions.
European and US leaders have condemned the arrest of a Belarusian opposition activist after the Ryanair flight he was travelling on was forced to divert and land on Sunday.
EU leaders will meet in Brussels today to discuss what action to take against Belarus for forcing the plane, which was travelling from Athens to the Lithuanian capital Vilnius, to land in Minsk following a false bomb threat.
In what was described by some EU leaders as a hijacking, the passenger plane was escorted by a Soviet-era fighter jet to the Belarusian capital where journalist Roman Protasevich, 26, was taken into custody.
The UK is alarmed by reports of the arrest of @nexta_tv journalist Roman Protasevich & circumstances that led to his flight being forced to land in Minsk. We are coordinating with our allies. This outlandish action by Lukashenko will have serious implications.
— Dominic Raab (@DominicRaab) May 23, 2021
Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said he was “alarmed” by the actions of the Belarus government of president Alexander Lukashenko, who is a close ally of Russian president Vladimir Putin.
He said: “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.
“The UK is working with our allies on a coordinated response, including further sanctions.”
He called on the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) to meet urgently to consider “the regime’s flouting of the international rules”.
Ursula von der Leyen, head of the European Commission, said those responsible for “the Ryanair hijacking must be sanctioned,” adding that EU leaders would discuss what action to take during their meeting.
Simon Coveney, foreign minister of Ireland, where Ryanair is based, said he believed several members of the security services left the plane when it was forced to land.
“Five or six people effectively left the plane. Only one of them was arrested, which would suggest that the others were secret service people,” Mr Coveney said.
Ryanair’s chief executive Michael O’Leary repeated these claims, saying he believed there were “also some KGB agents offloaded off the aircraft”.
He added: “This was a case of state-sponsored hijacking, state-sponsored piracy.”
In the US, Secretary of State Antony Blinken called the forced landing and arrest a “shocking act,” and demanded Protasevich be released.
He said President Joe Biden’s administration was “coordinating with our partners on next steps”.
The US, the EU, Britain and Canada have already imposed asset freezes and travel bans on almost 90 Belarusian officials, including Mr Lukashenko, over allegations of election fraud and cracking down violently on the opposition.
Protasevich worked for Poland-based online news service Nexta, which broadcast footage of mass protests against the Belarusian president last year through its Telegram messenger app.
He is wanted in Belarus on extremism charges and stands accused of organising mass riots and of inciting social hatred, allegations he denies.
One man on the flight, who gave his name as Mantas, told Reuters that Protasevich had leapt to his feet when pasengers were told the plane was being diverted to Minsk.
Roman stood up, opened the luggage compartment, took luggage and was trying to split things,” he said, adding that he gave a laptop and phone to his female companion.
Protasevich and his Russian girlfriend, believed to be student Sofia Sapega, 23, were led off the plane shortly after landing.
“We saw from the window that Roman is standing alone, and one policeman with dog was trying to find something (in his luggage),” Mantas said.
Raselle Grigoryeva, 37, told ABC News that passengers were caught by surprise when the plane suddenly plunged, adding: “We all on the plane had panicked because we thought we were going to crash.”
Describing the ordeal as a “circus”, she said passengers had their belongings and bodies searched and were placed in a small room with guards.
She said she felt sorry for Protasevich and that some passengers had suggested refusing to re-board the plane until he was released.
Belarus state media said Mr Lukashenko personally ordered a MiG-29 fighter jet to escort the flight he was on to Minsk after a bomb threat was received while it was over Belarus territory.
Officials later said no explosives had been found on board.
The plane was diverted just two minutes before it was due to cross into Lithuanian airspace, and after seven hours on the ground it took off and finally landed in Vilnius.