Air France among airlines to suspend flights over Belarus after plane ‘hijacking’


Leaders of the European Union (EU) member states on Monday agreed to cut the bloc's air links with Belarus following Sunday's Ryanair flight diversion incident.

On Monday, the airline called the incident "an act of aviation piracy" and said it is cooperating with investigations being conducted by European Union safety and security agencies and North Atlantic Treaty Organisation.

Many expect that the move to ban Belarus from European airspace will be followed by heavy sanctions.

In a sign that tensions remained high, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg described the Ryanair flight's diversion as "dangerous and unacceptable" and welcomed the European Union response.

U.S. President Joe Biden said late Monday that he asked his team to develop appropriate options to hold accountable those responsible, in close coordination with the European Union, other allies and partners, and global organizations.

As well as Mr Protasevich, they also urged authorities in Minsk to release his Russian girlfriend, Sofia Sapega, who was taken off the plane with him.

Minsk said it had reacted to secure the flight after receiving a bomb threat, supposedly from Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, but European leaders dismissed the claim as implausible.

Belarusian dissident journalist Roman Protasevich, who is wanted in Belarus for his role in broadcasting huge opposition protests in Minsk a year ago, did not have much time.

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At least three other people disembarked the flight in Minsk, assumed by Western countries to have been spies who had helped coordinate an operation to capture Protasevich. He said that Pratasevich's brief appearance on Belarus state television Monday night "was not reassuring, given the apparent bruising to his face, and the strong likelihood that his appearance was not voluntary and his "confession" to serious crimes was forced".

The U.S. -based Committee to Protect Journalists on Sunday said it was "shocked" by the incident, saying the Lukashenko government "has increasingly strangled the press in Belarus for the past year, detaining, fining and expelling journalists, and sentencing them to longer and longer prison terms". That could mean land-locked Belarus could soon be reached by air only over its eastern border with close ally Russian Federation. They were interviewed on Belarus state TV, which identified them as two Belarusians and a Greek. "If we let this go, tomorrow Alexander Lukashenko will go further and do something even more arrogant, more cruel", Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said in a statement.

Lukashenko, whose security services crushed months of pro-democracy demonstrations previous year after an election opponents said was rigged, has so far shrugged off Western sanctions, which mostly consist of blacklists barring various officials from travelling or doing business in the United States and EU. Politicians in the West have called for tougher measures.

Belarus has a reputation for using intimidation and coercion to force confessions from political prisoners, as a 2018 report from the USA secretary of state on human rights abuses in the Eastern European nation noted. Since the disputed vote, authorities have rounded up thousands of his opponents, with all major opposition figures now in jail or exile.

"I can say that I have no health problems".

"Police officers treat me properly and according to the law", he says.

He added that he was giving evidence to investigators about organising mass disturbances.

"When it was announced they were going to land in Minsk, Roman stood up, opened the luggage compartment, took luggage and was trying to split things", said a Lithuanian passenger, who gave his name only as Mantas.