MIAMI – Tensions over Belarus reach new heights today, as the European Union blocks air travel to/from Belarus and an exiled Belarusian opposition leader urges the US and Europe to take tougher measures against Minsk.

At their meeting in Brussels, EU leaders also announced that they were working on a new set of sanctions against Belarus and requested the release of Roman Protasevich, the 26-year-old Belarusian journalist and opposition activist who was detained in Minsk on Sunday after his Ryanair (FR) flight was rerouted to the Belarusian capital in a suspected KGB secret service operation.

Minsk’s actions have been globally condemned, with EU diplomats calling it “aviation piracy” and noting that such action close to home cannot be tolerated. The EU, often criticized for being incompetent and toothless in dealing with oppressive forces like Russia and Turkey, was hailed on Tuesday for toughening its position against Belarus.

The Athens to Vilnius plane with NEXT founder Roman Protasevich on board that was forced to land earlier today in Belarus. Photo: NEXTA

Response from Minsk

Minsk outlined its version of events leading to Protasevich’s detention today, claiming that it acted correctly by escorting the plane to Minsk after receiving an alleged bomb threat from Hamas, the anti-Israel terrorist organization, claiming the FR Boeing 737-800 would be blown up over Vilnius.

Minsk said it was looking into the fake bomb attack and welcomed a foreign investigation. According to the official statement, the FR pilot made the decision to fly to Minsk, though flight FR4978 was intercepted by an armed Belarusian MiG -29 fighter jet and forced to make the emergency landing just as it was leaving Belarusian airspace and closer to Lithuania’s capital, its final destination.

Featured image: Ryanair Boeing 737-800. Photo: John Leivaditis/Airways