European Union calls for investigation after Belarus diverts plane, arrests opposition journalist

A young woman stands with a poster reading

What was behind a passenger plane's diversion to Belarus

Air France, Finnair and Singapore Airlines became the latest carriers to suspend flights over Belarus on Tuesday after Minsk forced a jet to land to arrest a dissident.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken called the incident "shocking" and appealed for Pratasevich's release.

Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko sparked global outrage by dispatching a fighter jet Sunday to intercept a Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius carrying wanted reporter Roman Protasevich, 26, and his girlfriend Sofia Sapega.

The EU and the United States imposed several rounds of financial sanctions against Minsk past year, which had no effect on the behaviour of authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko, who withstood mass demonstrations against his rule after a disputed election.

On Monday night Pete Buttigieg, the United States secretary of transportation, said in a statement: "We strongly condemn the actions the Belarusian government took to force the diversion of a Ryanair flight for the apparent goal of arresting journalist Roman Pratasevich".

Biden made the statement - and joined calls for an global investigation - as the European Union imposed sanctions against Belarus, including banning its airlines from using the airspace and airports in the 27-nation bloc in reaction to Sunday's forced diversion of the Lithuania-bound Ryanair flight. Polish carrier LOT and Baltic airlines have begun bypassing Belarus.

The forced landing of an airliner flying between European Union nations has refocused attention on the festering political crisis in Belarus.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has deemed the event "state hijacking" and Ireland and France have characterized it as piracy amid mounting global outrage. "He said that he was treated lawfully, but he's clearly beaten and under pressure".

North Atlantic Treaty Organisation slammed a "serious and unsafe incident" and said envoys from the military alliance were to discuss it on Tuesday.

In a communique, the European Union leaders demanded that Belarus immediately release Protasevich as well as his girlfriend, Sofia Sapega, who was arrested with him.

Looking exhausted and seeming under duress, he said he was healthy and was confessing to charges of organizing mass disorder.

"This astonishing episode constitutes a new phase in the Belarusian authorities campaign of repression against journalists and civil society in general", Colville said.

Pratasevich was a co-founder of the Telegram messaging app's Nexta channel, which played a prominent role in helping organize major protests against Lukashenko.

With a file from 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".

Putsila said that the group relies on police protection and undertake "all the possible safety measures to minimize threats and carry out our everyday work".

Belarus has been rocked by months of protests, which were triggered by Lukashenko's reelection to a sixth term in an August 2020 vote that the opposition rejected as rigged.

The 66-year-old leader has ruled Belarus with an iron fist for over two decades and responded to the demonstrations with a violent crackdown, detaining thousands, many of whom reported torture and abuse in custody.

US President Joe Biden yesterday condemned Belarus for its actions and said he had asked his advisers to give him options to hold those responsible to account.

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