Germany's Merkel calls Ryanair bomb scare 'completely implausible' as European Union debates sanctions

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Furious Western powers prepared on Tuesday to heap sanctions on Belarus and cut off their aviation links with the former Soviet republic in response to the diversion of the Ryanair flight and arrest of Protasevich.

On Sunday, Ryanair Flight 4978 from Athens to Vilnius Airport in Lithuania was ordered by a Belarusian fighter jet to divert and land in Minsk because of a bomb threat.

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 objective of arresting journalist Roman Pratasevich".

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

The comments were immediately dismissed by his allies as having been made under duress.

The announcements came a day after European Union leaders urged EU-based airlines to avoid Belarusian airspace and banned the country's airlines from the 27-nation block. She called on the International Civil Aviation Organization to investigate the Sunday incident and the diversion of the Ryanair jet to Minsk.

"The reaction should be swift and be severe", Belgian Prime Minister Alexander de Croo told journalists ahead of the European Union summit that began at 1700 GMT.

Zakharova said a Russian consul met on Monday with Sapega's parents, who live in western Belarus.

"He was on a plane registered in an EU country. and flying from an EU country to an EU country!" "The United States joins countries around the world in calling for his release, as well as for the release of the hundreds of political prisoners who are being unjustly detained by the Lukashenka regime".

His social media feed from exile has been one of the last remaining independent outlets for news about Belarus since a mass crackdown on dissent previous year. Sapega, 23, is a Russian citizen, studying at a university in Vilnius.

The father of arrested Belarusian opposition blogger Roman Protasevich said Tuesday it was clear his son had been harmed from a video of him "confessing" to charges of organising protests.

Protasevich, who left Belarus in 2019, has become a top foe of Lukashenko with a popular messaging app he ran playing a key role in helping organize the huge protests, and authorities have increasingly tried to limit his influence.

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Protasevich and Putilo were added to Belarus's list of "individuals involved in terrorist activity" past year.

Britain said it was instructing British airlines to cease flights over Belarus and that it would suspend the air permit for Belarus's national carrier Belavia with immediate effect.

Still, the options for Western retaliation appear limited.

Lukashenko - who scrambled a Belarusian fighter jet to intercept the Ryanair flight - has remained defiant in the face of sanctions with help from his main backer Russian Federation.

Belarus lies on the flight path of routes within Europe and between Europe and Asia, and skirting Belarus would slow flights down and cost airlines money.

Lukashenko denies election fraud.

U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez said in a joint statement with his counterparts from seven European parliamentary panels denouncing the forced landing as "an act of piracy".

In the video, Protasevich's face appears to be marked with abrasions and bruises, suggesting that authorities subjected him to "torture or other ill-treatment" before recording the supposed confession, Amnesty International spokesman Alexander Artemyev told The Washington Post.

The France-based media watchdog group Reporters Without Borders filed a complaint with the prosecutor general's office in Vilnius against Lukashenko "and any other persons the investigation would identify as liable for instigating or committing the crime".

Britain, the European Union and the USA are among the nations to have condemned what was described by Ryanair's boss as a "state-sponsored hijacking".

US President Joe Biden slammed the forced diversion of the plane and arrest of Protasevich as "a direct affront to global norms" and said the video appeared to have been made "under duress".

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