Czech leaders voice support for tough sanctions on Belarus after hijacking of Ryanair flight

Ryanair plane carrying opposition figure Roman Protasevich

In reaction to last week’s hijacking of a Ryanair aircraft in order to arrest an opposition blogger, EU leaders have agreed to ramp up sanctions on Belarus and to block travel in its airspace. Belarus’ actions were also condemned by the Czech Chamber of Deputies and the government announced it is suspending Belarusian Airlines (Belavia) flights over Czech territory.

Last week on Sunday, a Ryanair aircraft was traveling from Athens to Vilnius when it was suddenly forced to divert its course and land in Minsk, escorted by a MiG fighter jet. Reportedly, this was due to air traffic controllers telling the pilots that there was a bomb on the plane.

Police then arrested the Belarusian opposition blogger Roman Protasevich and his girlfriend, Sofia Sapega. It is believed that at least three other passengers remained in Belarus.

The action has since been widely condemned by Western leaders. US President Joe Biden called the incident scandalous. Meanwhile, Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš called it an “act of state terrorism”.

Věra Jourová | Photo: Gabor KOVACS,  European Parliament/Wikimedia Commons,  CC BY 2.0

European leaders discussed their response to the actions of Belarus at this week’s EU summit. Aside from calling for new sanctions and demanding the immediate release of Roman Protasevich and Sofia Sapega, they also called on the Council of the European Union to adopt measures barring Belarusian aircraft from flying in EU airspace or accessing EU airports.

Vice President of the European Commission Věra Jourová told Czech Radio that EU leaders were united in their condemnation of Belarus already ahead of the meeting.

“One could see at the summit just how shocked EU leaders were about the lengths to which [Belarus President Alexander] Lukashenko’s regime is willing to go. Some are talking about state terrorism. The prime minister of Ireland called it a state organised hijacking of a plane. Personally, I will voice support for the hardest course of action against Belarus. [Lukasheko’s regime] needs to be confronted with painful sanctions, especially economic sanctions.”

The Czech commissioner also did not rule out that the EU may place sanctions on Russia.

Alexander Lukashenko | Photo: Ron Przysucha,  Wikimedia Commons / U.S. Department of State,  public domain

“I think that President Lukashenko would not dare to resort to such an action if he did not feel the support of Vladimir Putin. Both at the summit and at NATO meetings, these two countries will be discussed in context and the coordinated steps we agree on will pursue a united reaction towards these dangers and the overall deterioration of the relationship on the part of both countries.”

The Czech lower-house also did not wait long in condemning the actions of Belarus. On Tuesday, MPs called on the government to support EU sanctions and suggested that Belarus be kicked out of Interpol and that members of its KGB intelligence service on EU territory should be expelled.

Transport Minister Karel Havlíček announced on Wednesday that the government will ban all Belavia flights over Czech territory, which would include the direct line from Prague to Belarus, until the outcome of an independent investigation into the incident.

In his address to Belarusian MPs on Wednesday, President Lukashenko said that he acted legally and according to international norms. He claimed that Belarusian authorities had received a tip-off from Switzerland that there was a bomb on the plane.