The sudden diversion of an Athens to Vilnius, Lithuania flight by the government of Belarus on Sunday, which has been described as a “state hijacking” by Greece, has sparked global outrage.
The passenger plane was suddenly diverted to Minsk, the capital of Belarus, escorted there by a Soviet-era MiG-29 fighter jet. Authorities took dissident journalist Roman Protasevich into custody upon its landing.
“Greece strongly condemns the state hijacking that resulted in the forced landing of Ryanair FR 4978, which operated the Athens-Vilnius route in Minsk, Belarus.
“The plane had a total of 171 passengers on board, 11 of whom are Greek citizens. This act, which endangered the lives of all passengers, is unacceptable,” said the statement by the Greek Foreign Ministry.
“We believe that similar practices, which refer to other times and which are not appropriate for any civilized state, should not go unanswered.
“The Greek side is in close coordination with the other EU member states and expects that this issue will be thoroughly addressed at the forthcoming European Council,” Athens said.
Earlier, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis reacted with outrage to the grounding of the Athens to Vilnius flight.
The forced landing of a commercial plane to detain a journalist is an unprecedented, shocking act. We demand all passengers’ immediate release. Tomorrow’s #EUCO must address the need to step up pressure on Belarus. Enough is enough.
— Prime Minister GR (@PrimeministerGR) May 23, 2021
Diversion of Athens-Vilnius flight an “act of piracy”
As European officials threatened new sanctions on Belarus, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken called the forced landing and arrest a “shocking act,” demanded Protasevich’s immediate release and said President Joe Biden’s administration was “coordinating with our partners on next steps.”
U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez issued a statement with the heads of seven European parliamentary foreign affairs panels denouncing the forced landing as “an act of piracy.” They called for a ban on all overflights of Belarus, including to and from the country, and for NATO and EU states to impose sanctions and suspend Belarus’ “ability to use Interpol.”
EU member state Lithuania, where Protasevich is based, urged the European Union and NATO to respond to the outrage.
Ursula von der Leyen, the head of the EU’s executive European Commission, declared that Protasevich must be released immediately and that those responsible for “the Ryanair hijacking must be sanctioned,” adding that EU leaders meeting in Brussels on Monday would discuss what action to take.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said in a tweet that the incident was serious and dangerous and required an international investigation.
Simon Coveney, the Foreign Minister of Ireland, where Ryanair is based, said on Twitter: “EU inaction or indecision will be taken as weakness by Belarus.”
Belarus security services behind the hijacking?
Initial reports from Greece say that the forcible diversion of the Athens to Vilnius flight was organized by Belarusian security services who were “shadowing” the dissident in Athens.
US Ambassador to Greece Geoffrey Pyatt said that US authorities are cooperating with Greece to fully investigate the incident.
Initial reports suggesting the involvement of the Belarusian security services and the use of Belarusian military aircraft to escort the plane are deeply concerning and require full investigation.
We are closely coordinating our response with our partners including 🇬🇷 officials. https://t.co/wQxV5CVnHT
— Geoffrey Pyatt (@USAmbPyatt) May 24, 2021