Nicosia slams Belarus’ Ryanair flight ‘hijack’

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Cyprus joined Brussels, the US and UK in condemning the diversion of a Ryanair flight by Belarus on Sunday to arrest journalist Roman Protasevich.

The Cyprus Foreign Ministry said it is in contact with the Cypriot passenger on Ryanair flight FR4978 from Athens to Vilnius in Lithuania, forced to land in Minsk for the arrest.

Nicosia deplored Belarus’ actions and called for Protasevich to be released.

The Foreign Ministry tweeted Monday: “We reiterate that we strongly denounce Belarus actions which jeopardize civil aviation safety, we call for the immediate release of RomanProtasevich”.

Foreign Minister Nikos Christodoulides talked with his Lithuanian counterpart Gabrielius Landsbergis, who briefed him on the situation after the landing in Vilnius of the Ryanair flight.

European leaders are to discuss the situation at a meeting on Monday, Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said, warning that “the outrageous and illegal behaviour of the regime in Belarus will have consequences.”

“Those responsible for the Ryanair hijacking must be sanctioned,” she added.

Protasevich, 26, is a founder of a messaging app channel in Belarus, which has been a key information conduit for opponents of Belarus’ authoritarian president.

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko ordered a MiG-29 fighter jet to accompany the Ryanair plane to Minsk airport.

The bloc’s top diplomat, Josep Borrell, said the arrest constitutes “yet another blatant attempt by Belarusian authorities to silence all opposition voices.”

Lithuania, which called for the special meeting of the European Council to discuss the incident, said Belarus had effectively held EU citizens hostage, by diverting the plane.

It called on the 27-country bloc to consider issuing a joint EU recommendation to avoid entering Belarus airspace and demand the International Civil Aviation Authority strip its membership.

US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said Washington “strongly condemn” the Belarusian regime’s “brazen and shocking act to divert a commercial flight to arrest a journalist.”

“We demand an international investigation and are coordinating with our partners on next steps,” he wrote on Twitter.

Britain’s Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said London is “coordinating with our allies.” “This outlandish action by Lukashenko will have serious implications.”

Last November, the Belarusian security services (KGB) placed Pratasevich on the list of “individuals involved in terrorist activities”.

He was a co-founder of the Nexta Telegram channel that’s played a leading role in the wave of protests in Belarus against the 2020 re-election of President Lukashenko, who has held the position since 1994.

But the protests gradually faltered in the face of mass arrests and police violence that left at least four people dead, with ongoing judicial harassment and heavy prison sentences imposed on activists and journalists.

The EU has so far slapped sanctions on high-ranking Belarusian officials, including Lukashenko, for the electoral fraud and the violent repression of protesters.

Pratasevich, who had fled the country for Poland, faces charges that could carry a prison sentence of up to 15 years.

Exiled Belarus opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya called on the International Civil Aviation Organization to begin an investigation.