The British government has told all UK planes to cease flying over Belarus and summoned the country’s ambassador amid outrage over the arrest of an opposition blogger and his girlfriend when their Ryanair flight was forced to make an emergency landing in Minsk.
The foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, said further sanctions were being considered against Belarus and the transport secretary, Grant Shapps, said he had suspended the operating permit for Belavia, the country’s state-owned airline, in the UK.
The UK response comes ahead of a meeting of EU leaders on Monday evening that could take measures against Belarus including banning Belavia from EU airports and suspending all Belarusian flights over UK territory.
In a statement on Monday morning on behalf of the EU, Josep Borrell, the bloc’s high representative for foreign affairs, called for an international investigation into the incident and warned that those involved faced sanctions. “The EU will consider the consequences of this action, including taking measures against those responsible,” he said.
Raab said work on UK sanctions would also continue in association with partners.
Roman Protasevich and Sofia Sapega were flying from Athens to Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, when the plane was diverted to Minsk. Protasevich, a former editor of the influential Telegram channels Nexta and Nexta Live, was detained by police in Minsk after Lukashenko ordered his military to scramble a Mig-29 fighter to meet the plane.
Ryanair said Belarusian flight controllers told the pilots there was a bomb threat against the jet and ordered them to land in Minsk. Raab described the “reckless and dangerous” act by Belarusian authorities as “a shocking assault on civil aviation and an assault on international law”.
He said Britain had seen no evidence to support the claim of a bomb threat.
Ryanair’s chief executive, Michael O’Leary, said he believed agents of the Belarusian KGB were travelling on the plane in the first official confirmation of reports that four other passengers had disembarked in Minsk after the emergency landing, driving speculation that Protasevich was being shadowed by the security service.
“It appears the intent of the authorities was to remove a journalist and his travelling companion … we believe there were some KGB agents offloaded at the airport as well,” he said.