Published: Wed, May 26, 2021

Belarus plane: Who is Russian student Sofia Sapega?

Belarus plane: Who is Russian student Sofia Sapega?

World leaders have condemned authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko for what many have described as a "hijacking", while the European Union imposed sanctions and US President Joe Biden described it as an "outrageous incident" and a "direct affront to global norms".

"They have moved from organising riots to strangulation".

"The North Atlantic Council strongly condemns the forced diversion to Minsk, Belarus of a Ryanair flight between Athens and Vilnius on 23 May, as well as the removal from the diverted aircraft and arrest of Raman Pratasevich [Roman Protasevich], a prominent Belarusian journalist travelling on board, and Sofia Sapega", NATO said in a statement on Belarus on May 26, 2021.

Lukashenko has been in power since 1994 and took his sixth consecutive term past year after an election period marred by a brutal crackdown on mass protests against the leader.

Lukashenko on Wednesday denied that the fighter jet had forced the airliner to land, calling such claims an "absolute lie".

Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Wednesday there was no reason to disbelieve Lukashenko's version of events.

European leaders are now accusing authorities in Minsk of essentially hijacking the passenger flight and they agreed this week to cut air links with Belarus and told airliners to avoid the country's airspace. More than 34,000 people have been arrested in Belarus since then, and thousands beaten.

"They have crossed many red lines and crossed boundaries of common sense and human morality", Lukashenko added.

Ivan Tertel, the chief of the Belarusian state security agency that still goes under its Soviet-era acronym KGB, said that Pratasevich told investigators about "the sponsors of subversive activities against Belarus, its mechanisms and special services and politicians behind it" and promised to release details soon.

Pratasevich, who left Belarus in 2019, has become a top foe of Lukashenko with a popular messaging app he ran playing a key role in helping organize the huge protests. "It's no longer just an information war, it's a modern hybrid war and we need to do everything to prevent it from spilling into a hot conflict". Protasevich faces up to 15 years in jail on charges of organizing mass unrest.

Lukashenko threatened that Belarus would retaliate against the European Union by weakening its border controls halting Western-bound illegal migration and drug trafficking.

EASA's intervention on safety grounds is separate from the ministerial threat of political sanctions and includes non-EU airlines that continue in some cases to fly over Belarus - part of the main corridor between Asia and Europe.

"We were stopping migrants and drugs - now you will catch them and eat them yourself", he said.

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