Ryanair flight diverted to Belarus lands safely in Lithuania, EU to discuss sanctions

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Ryanair Flight Diverted To Belarus Lands Safely In Lithuania, Eu To Discuss Sanctions
In the dramatic incident, described by one EU leader as a hijacking, a Soviet-era MiG-29 fighter jet escorted the Ryanair-operated passenger plane. Photo: Getty Images.
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Ryanair said its flight that was forced to land and spend a number of hours on the ground in Belarus on Sunday arrived safely in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius at 1825 GMT.

European Union leaders will discuss "possible sanctions" on Belarus at their summit in Brussels on Monday, a spokesman for EU Council chairman Charles Michel said on Sunday.

"Consequences and possible sanctions will be discussed at this occasion," Mr Michel's spokesman Barend Leyts said on Twitter.

Belarusian authorities scrambled a fighter jet and flagged what turned out to be a false bomb alert to force a Ryanair plane to land on Sunday and then detained an opposition-minded journalist who was on board, drawing criticism from across Europe.

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In the dramatic incident, described by one EU leader as a hijacking, a Soviet-era MiG-29 fighter jet escorted the Ryanair-operated passenger plane flying from Athens to Lithuania.

The plane was suddenly diverted to Minsk, the capital of Belarus, where authorities detained journalist Roman Protasevich.

'Shaking'

Mr Protasevich, 26, had his head in his hands and was shaking when he realised the flight was headed for Minsk, Lithuania's Delfi news outlet said, quoting a passenger.

Later, as he was led away, according to the report, he remarked: "I'll get the death penalty here." Reuters could not verify the report.

Last year, Mr Protasevich was an editor for Poland-based Nexta Live, which played an important role in broadcasting huge opposition protests against Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko via the 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.

Data from the flightradar24.com website showed the plane was diverted just two minutes before it was due to cross into Lithuanian airspace.

After several hours in Minsk, the plane took off and finally landed in Vilnius where Lithuanian Prime Minister Ingrida Simonyte was waiting to meet the passengers.

Dire relations

EU member state Lithuania, where Mr Protasevich is based, urged the European Union and NATO to respond. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said in a Tweet that the incident was serious and dangerous and required an international investigation.

The incident has drawn international criticism, with Germany calling for an immediate explanation and Poland's prime minister describing it as a "reprehensible act of state terrorism".

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Ursula von der Leyen, head of the EU's executive European Commission, said Belarus's action was "utterly unacceptable" and British foreign minister Dominic Raab said there would be serious implications for the "outlandish action".

The EU has already imposed three rounds of sanctions on Belarus, and has been working on a fourth round of measures targeting senior Belarusian officials in response to last year's contested presidential election, diplomats told Reuters previously.

The incident is certain to worsen already dire relations between the West and Belarus, which has been tightly controlled since 1994 by President Lukashenko.

Opponents accuse him of rigging a presidential election in his own favour last year and of then cracking down violently on the opposition. He denies electoral fraud.

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