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Belarus faces international fury after using fighter jet to land airliner, seize journalist

"While it sounds like an extraordinary Hollywood plot, it's not. The reality of this apparent act of air piracy is chilling," Amnesty International said.
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"Piracy," "hijacking" and "state terrorism" — the condemnation of Belarus was swift and strong after it forced the landing of a commercial airplane carrying an opposition journalist.

In a show of unified fury, the United States, Britain, the European Union, NATO and the United Nations on Monday lined up to call out the action in the skies above the eastern European country led by Alexander Lukashenko, often referred to as Europe's last dictator.

President Joe Biden called the incident "outrageous" in a statement and said the U.S. stood with other countries urging for the release of Roman Protasevich, who was traveling on the flight.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken called the plane's forced landing "brazen and shocking,"and noted that American passengers were on board.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters Monday that National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan had "raised our strong concerns on this issue," with his Russian counterpart during a meeting Monday. Russian President Vladimir Putin has been a vocal supporter of Lukashenko.

Psaki declined to say whether the White House considered it safe for U.S. airlines to fly in Belarus airspace.

E.U. Commission President Ursula von der Leyen tweeted Sunday that "the outrageous and illegal behavior of the regime in Belarus will have consequences." While former President of the European Council Donald Tusk labeled the incident an "act of state terrorism."

The chorus of international ire follows the forced landing in Minsk, the Belarusian capital, of a Ryanair flight on Sunday carrying key opposition blogger, Protasevich. He was detained on arrival, officials and rights activists said.

The commercial Ryanair passenger plane was traveling from Greece to Lithuania when a Soviet-era MiG-29 fighter jet was nearby and Belarusian authorities flagged what turned out to be a false bomb alert to force the aircraft to land.

Protasevich, 26, works for the Poland-based online news service NEXTA and is wanted in Belarus for broadcasting mass protests against Lukashenko last year via the Telegram messenger app.

Image: Opposition blogger and activist Roman Protasevich arrives for a court hearing in Minsk
Opposition journalist and activist Roman Protasevich arrives for a court hearing in Minsk, Belarus, in 2017.Reuters file

According to passengers on the jet who spoke to Reuters, Protasevich held his head in his hands and looked sad and scared on landing. He also appeared to pass his laptop and mobile phone to a female companion, while authorities were later seen taking Protasevich into custody on arrival in Minsk.

It's unclear what charges or jail terms Protasevich could face, but Belarus remains among a handful of countries in Europe to administer the death penalty.

"While it sounds like an extraordinary Hollywood plot, it's not. The reality of this apparent act of air piracy is chilling," Marie Struthers, human rights group Amnesty International's Eastern Europe and Central Asia director said in a statement.

Struthers said the European Union and "the rest of the world must react without delay" in calling for Protasevich's immediate release.

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Michael O'Leary, chief executive of Ryanair, which operated the flight, called the incident "state-sponsored hijacking ... state-sponsored piracy" on Irish Newstalk radio.

A spokesman for the Belarusian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Anatoly Glaz, batted away what he called "bellicose" statements from the West on Monday and said the government's actions complied with international law.

During unrest in Belarus last August following Lukashenko's reelection — the president's allegedly landslide win has been widely criticized — then-candidate Joe Biden said the people of Belarus were facing "systematic repression" and living under an "authoritarian regime." Lukashenko denies electoral fraud.

The E.U. has already imposed three rounds of sanctions on Belarus in response to last year's contested presidential election. Some European politicians are now calling for tougher next steps, among them the suspension of E.U. airlines flying over Belarus and a ban on Belarusian airlines from landing at E.U. airports.

But the E.U. will also have to tread carefully to avoid pushing Lukashenko into even closer ties with key ally, Russia.

So far, Russian President Vladimir Putin has not commented but the editor-in-chief of state-controlled Russia Today tweeted that Lukashenko had "performed beautifully."

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said during a press conference on Monday that Russia was "in favor of assessing this situation not in a hurry, not in a rush."

A Latvian airline, airBaltic, became the first on Monday to announce it would no longer fly over Belarusian air space.