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Irish Minister For European Affairs On Belarus' Forced Diversion To Arrest Journalist


Minutes before a Ryanair commercial airliner was to cross over the border to Lithuania, air traffic control in Belarus told it to turn around. A Belarusian fighter jet made sure it did so. And after the plane landed in Minsk on Sunday, authorities arrested a dissident journalist on board.


CHARLES MICHEL: What happened yesterday is an international scandal. Life of European civilians were at risk yesterday. This is not acceptable.

CHANG: That was European Council President Charles Michel. Tonight, the European Union moved to ban Belarusian airlines from flying through EU airspace and using EU airports. It also urged EU airlines to avoid flying over Belarus and called for economic sanctions on the country's officials. With us now is Thomas Byrne, European affairs minister for Ireland.


THOMAS BYRNE: Thank you, Ailsa.

CHANG: So Ryanair is, of course, an Irish company, and the CEO there called this incident a, quote, "state-sponsored hijacking." Now, that's the airline's point of view. What about the Irish government's point of view? How do you describe what happened on Sunday?

BYRNE: Well, I agree wholeheartedly with Michael O'Leary that Ryanair is the European equivalent of, let's say, Southwest Airlines. It's a very, very popular tourism commercial airline throughout Europe. It's Irish-owned, but they fly all over Europe, and they're flying between two European countries with civilians coming back from Greece to Lithuania. And basically this plane was ordered to land in Belarus, which is...

CHANG: Right.

BYRNE: ...Effectively now becoming a rogue state very quickly. And this is very dangerous and cannot be allowed to continue. It cannot be allowed to happen again.

CHANG: Well, now authorities in Belarus had claimed that they received a terrorist threat and that that was the reason for diverting the plane. I'm just going to assume that you find that justification not credible. Is that right?

BYRNE: Completely unbelievable - and I'm really glad that the European Council this evening has called for an International Civil Aviation Organization investigation. And I believe the Biden White House as well has announced their support for that, too. And that has to happen as a matter of urgency. Ordinary citizens' lives were in danger. And the journalist, Roman Protasevich, who's only in his 20s, and his girlfriend Sofia Sapega were taken from that plane and detained by Belarus authorities. This is wrong. It's illegal and, quite frankly, could happen to any of us, so we cannot allow this to happen or continue anywhere in the world.

CHANG: Let me ask you, as far as you know, is there any legal authority you can think of which a country in Europe can rely on to force a commercial airplane to land before it has reached its destination?

BYRNE: Well, what happened here is there seemed to be a pretext used that there was a bomb on board or some sort of terrorist threat, and I don't believe that. And on that basis, of course the plane is going to land, if that's the case, for the safety of passengers. But this appears to be a pretext. And as a result, we are going to make sure that Belarus pays for this. Their airline will not be allowed into European airspace or airports. European airlines will not be able to overfly Belarus for safety, and we're going to continue and expand the sanctions that we've put in place with respect to Belarus as well.


BYRNE: Belarus is a country which - its citizens are suffering badly, and now the regime is trying to extend that suffering to citizens of other countries who have to fly over their country. This cannot be allowed to continue.

CHANG: Let's talk about economic sanctions. I'm wondering, how effective might those sanctions be? - because Russia has long supported Alexander Lukashenko's regime, and Russia could just jump in to backstop Belarus should more sanctions be imposed, right?

BYRNE: Well, I - the sanctions will always have an effect. And I think I'd have to say that the Baltic states such as Latvia and Lithuania who are - and Estonia who are next to Belarus and have huge experience dealing with them - I think they strongly favored sanctions and were willing to support that. But what we want is now further targeted economic sanctions not just on individuals but on entities, which includes companies and corporations in Belarus in terms of the trade that they do.

And I do really feel that these will have a price and that Lukashenko, the dictator in Belarus, I think, really has gone one step too far. He made a critical tactical error yesterday - that's what we call it, if we give any credit to these dictators - by doing this the day before the European Council met. I think European leaders - I have never seen such determination, such anger and quick agreements to take these strong actions. European Council at times can be difficult because every member state has to agree.

CHANG: Right.

BYRNE: And every member state has agreed to this, and it will happen.

CHANG: What about Russia's role here? I mean, do you think Russia should be held accountable in some way because of this incident because of its long support of Lukashenko's regime?

BYRNE: Look. I think the leaders are discussing Russia at the moment, actually, in their meeting after coming to these conclusions. We need to get to the bottom of what exactly happened. There are suggestions that there were Russian diplomats on this plane and left the flight in Minsk. We have to get to the bottom of that. And that's why it's really important that there's a ICAO investigation into this - to find out what role, if any, that Russian citizens had. They shouldn't be involved in this. This is not acceptable. This cannot continue. And I have no doubt that when we see the United States and the European Union - apparently tonight they're really speaking effectively with one voice and with the same objectives on this. I think that that will push, I would hope, unbearable pressure on Belarus and all those who support Belarus in the way that they run their particular country.

CHANG: Thomas Byrne is the European affairs minister for Ireland.

Thank you very much for joining our show today.

BYRNE: Thank you for having me on.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAUTIOUS CLAY SONG, "COLD WAR") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.

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