EU considers shunning Belarus airspace over forced landing

The interception of an Irish airline flight by a Belarus fighter jet, diverting it to land in Belarus - and the subsequent arrest of a dissident journalist aboard - has left both the European Union and NATO military alliance scrambling to react to what Ireland is calling an act of "piracy."

There was also a possible act of espionage involved. Passengers from the flight here, disembarking after finally reaching their intended destination in Lithuania.

The French president's office has told Reuters that the EU may block its air and ground transport links in and out of Belarus in retaliation. The U.S. says several American citizens were aboard.

Flight tracking data shows that airlines areavoiding Belarus airspace.

Ryanair flight 4978 was traveling between Greece and Lithuania Sunday (May 23) with Roman Protasevich, who had been living in exile and is one of the few remaining independent journalists from Belarus since the government's crackdown on dissent last year.

Both Greece and Lithuania are NATO members. Ryanair's CEO says it believes that Belarus had hidden spies aboard the flight, who disembarked when it was forced to land in Minsk.

This was CEO Michael O'Leary on Irish newstalk radio Monday (May 24):

"I think it's the first time it has happened to a European airline. But I mean this was a case of state-sponsored... It was a state-sponsored hijack. It was state-sponsored piracy."

This passenger says that the moment the flight captain announced the plane was diverting to Belarus that Protasevich shot out of his seat, knowing that his time was up.

"So Roman (Protasevich) stands up to open the luggage door, take the luggage and was trying to split the things, like computer give it to his girlfriend, (passing his) iPhone or whatever his phone (was) to (his) girlfriend. I think he made a small mistake because there were around plenty people so he could give things not to the girlfriend who was also I think arrested."

The passenger looked directly into his eyes and saw that he was very sad.

A university in Lithuania says one of its students, Sofia Sapega, was arrested as well.

In addition to severing transport, Western countries may levy more sanctions in Belarus. But it's not clear what effect that may have - the country has shrugged off similar measures in the past.

Belarus said Sunday that it was initially reacting to a false bomb threat on the flight, and its state-owned media say that President Alexander Lukashenko personally intervened.

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