Belarus is threatening all EU citizens, Lithuanian PM says – POLITICO



When it comes to Belarus, “nobody is safe,” Lithuanian Prime Minister Ingrida Šimonytė said on Monday.

The Belarusian government’s decision on Sunday to divert a Ryanair plane heading from Athens to Vilnius and detain two passengers — a Belarusian anti-government journalist and his girlfriend — has sent shockwaves through Europe. EU leaders have expressed outrage over the incident, which is set to be discussed on Monday night as European heads of state and government gather in Brussels.

Šimonytė, who was in Vilnius airport when the remaining passengers finally arrived after their unexpected stop in Minsk, described a tough scene as the plane finally reached its final destination — without all of its original travelers.

“More than [a] hundred tired people who just wanted to get home as soon as possible,” Šimonytė told POLITICO in a phone interview.

As a result of the disruption — which many have described as a hijacking — Lithuanian officials had to ask passengers to go through passport control and police questioned those who sat close to the arrested journalist, Roman Protasevich, and his girlfriend, Russian citizen Sofia Sapega.

“There were people with babies and small kids,” the prime minister said, noting they had spent hours waiting in Minsk with “no information provided.”

“I can only imagine the pressure and the feelings of … people who were not knowing what’s going to happen,” she said, declining to comment on the flight’s other passengers in question — possibly members of a security service — who left the plane in Minsk.

Lithuania’s government — a vocal critic of Belarusian strongman Alexander Lukashenko — has opened its doors to dissidents fleeing Minsk’s crackdowns, including Protasevich, who had been living in Lithuania. As a result of the Ryanair incident, Vilnius on Monday announced it will ban flights to or from Lithuanian airports from crossing through Belarusian airspace. It is also urging Lithuanian citizens to avoid Belarus.

Šimonytė emphasized that she does not see Lithuania’s response as part of a bilateral dispute, and that everyone is in danger as a result of Belarus’ behavior.

Lithuania, she said, wants “to have a coordinated European decision” on the airspace issue. EU leaders are planning to discuss the matter at a European Council summit that begins Monday night in Brussels. But imminent action might be difficult, given legal and political hurdles.

Lithuania’s government is calling for the EU to introduce new sanctions against Belarus, in addition to banning European airlines from flying over Belarusian airspace. It also wants the bloc to bar the Belarusian state-owned airline, Belavia, from using EU airspace.

“It could have been any two capitals of European Union,” Šimonytė said. “It could have been any person who is not to the liking of Lukashenko, opposition person or some politician from some other country or whoever.”

“This is a pure accident, I would say, that it was this flight from Athens to Vilnius,” she argued, adding that while the majority of the plane’s passengers were Lithuanian citizens, there were also citizens of over 10 EU countries on board.

Essentially, for Šimonytė — a member of Homeland Union, which forms part of the European People’s Party — this is a problem that affects everyone.

“This should not be considered as … some debate between Vilnius and Minsk,” she said.

The prime minister expressed optimism that Europe will take a common approach.

Referring to “extensive” and “quite promising” contacts with partners, Šimonytė said that there is an understanding among European capitals of the risks the current regime in Minsk poses to citizens.

“You cannot simply ignore that somebody in the middle of Europe can actually ground any plane on false changes and put people into danger,” she said. “We are happy to get all our people back, but this is not the end of the story — and this should not be the end of the story.”



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