France denounced on Sunday what it called the “hijacking” by Belarus of a commercial flight carrying a journalist accsued of reporting unfavourably on its dictator president Alexander Lukashenko. Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian took to Twitter to demand a “firm and united response” from the other 26 members.

“The hijacking by Belarusian authorities of a Ryanair flight is unacceptable. A firm and united response from the Europeans is essential,” he said.

Belarusian security agents on board the flight from Athens to Vilnius claimed that a bomb was on board and the flight was diverted to the airport outside the capital, Minsk, where Roman Protassevich was arrested on landing. An airport spokesperson said that no bomb was found. The aircraft was two minutes from Lithuanian airspace when it diverted.

Germany and Poland joined in the outrage, while EU Foreign Minister Josep Borrell, also on Twitter, said that all passengers should be allowed to continue their journey.

President of the European Council Charles Michel issued a press statement: “I condemn in the strongest possible terms the forced landing of a Ryanair flight in Minsk, Belarus, on 23 May 2021 and the reported detention by Belarusian authorities of journalist Raman Pratasevich.

“I call on Belarus authorities to immediately release the detained passenger and to fully guarantee his rights.
EU leaders will discuss this unprecedented incident tomorrow during the European Council. The incident will not remain without consequences.”

Eight days ago the head of the TUT.BY independent online news service and seven of his colleagues were arrested in Minsk on trumped-up charges of tax evasion, signalling a further crackdown.

BELTA, the Belarus state news agency, said that Lukashenko had himself ordered the forced landing of the Ryanair flight.

FILE PHOTO: Opposition blogger and activist Roman Protasevich, who is accused of participating in an unsanctioned protest at the Kuropaty preserve, arrives for a court hearing in Minsk, Belarus April 10, 2017. Picture taken April 10, 2017. REUTERS/Stringer