The United Nations Security Council will hold a behind-closed-doors meeting on Wednesday over the diversion of a Ryanair plane to Belarus and the subsequent arrest of a journalist, Euronews has learned.
Several diplomats said the meeting, which will be virtual, was demanded by France, Ireland and Estonia.
France is a permanent member of the security council along with the United States, United Kingdom, China, and Russia. Ireland and Estonia are non-permanent members this year.
It comes after European Union leaders agreed on a set of sanctions to be laid against Belarus, including banning its airlines from using the bloc's airspace and airports.
EU leaders also demanded the immediate release of the journalist, Roman Protasevich, a key foe of authoritarian Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko.
"We won't tolerate that one can try to play Russian roulette with the lives of innocent civilians,'' said EU Council chief Charles Michel, who presided over the EU meeting.
EU leaders came to the decision at an emergency summit held on Monday and are expected to enforce the sanctions as soon as legal proceedings will allow.
One diplomat told AFP that any Security Council declaration would likely be opposed by Russia, an ally of Belarus.
'Attack on democracy'
"This is an attack on democracy,'' said Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission.
"This is an attack on freedom of expression. And this is an attack on European sovereignty. And this outrageous behaviour needs a strong answer.''
Von der Leyen added that a 3 billion EU investment and economic package for Belarus will remain on hold until Belarus "turns democratic.''
US President Joe Biden said late Monday that he asked his team to develop appropriate options to hold accountable those responsible, in close coordination with the European Union, other allies and partners, and international organizations.
"The United States joins countries around the world in calling for his release, as well as for the release of the hundreds of political prisoners who are being unjustly detained by the Lukashenka regime,'' Biden's statement said.
Protasevich appears on video
The decision came as Roman Protasevich, the journalist who was detained in Belarus, appeared in a video posted on Telegram on Monday, saying he was in good health, but was being held in a pre-trial detention facility in Minsk.
With his hands tightly clasped and with a dark mark visible on the journalist's forehead, Protasevich acknowledges that he played a part in organising mass protests in Minsk last year.
Shortly after the video was published, allies of the journalist suggested the video was likely made under duress, with Sviatlana Thiskanouskaya, a leader of the Belarusian opposition, writing on Twitter: “This is how Raman looks under physical and moral pressure," using the Belarusian spelling of his name.
"I demand the immediate release of Raman and all political prisoners,” Thiskanouskaya said.
Protasevich's detention has sparked international outrage, with the European Commission's president warning that Belarus would face "severe consequences" for its actions.
"There will be a very strong answer because it is outrageous behaviour and Lukashenko and his regime have to understand that this will have severe consequences," Ursula von der Leyen told reporters on Monday.
EU leaders will discuss further sanctions, she said, including against business and economic entities that are financing the regime and against the aviation sector in Belarus after the "hijacking" of the flight.
Belarus forced Sunday's Ryanair flight FR4978 from Athens to Vilnius in Lithuania to divert before arresting Protasevich.
Protasevich, 26, is a founder of a messaging app channel in Belarus, that has been a key information conduit for opponents of Belarus’ authoritarian president.
The Belarusian presidential press service said that President Alexander Lukashenko personally ordered a MiG-29 fighter jet to accompany the Ryanair plane to Minsk airport.
It said a bomb threat was received while the plane was over Belarusian territory; officials later said no explosives were found onboard.
The European Union, the US and UK have condemned the diversion of the flight by Belarus on Sunday to arrest Protasevich.
Ryanair said in a statement on Sunday that it has "notified the relevant national and European safety and security agencies" after being diverted to Belarus and apologised to all affected passengers "for this regrettable delay, which was outside Ryanair's control."
Belarus claims Hamas bomb threat was behind Ryanair flight diversion
Belarus claimed on Monday that they had received a message from Palestinian militant group Hamas threatening to blow up a Lithuania-bound flight over Belarusian airspace unless the European Union condemned Israel over the conflict in the Gaza Strip.
Belarusian transport ministry director Artem Sikorski said that the message read: "We, Hamas soldiers, demand that Israel stop firing on the Gaza sector.
"We demand that the European Union cease its support for Israel (...) if our demands are not met a bomb will explode (on board of the Ryanair plane) over Vilnius."
Sikorski was speaking in the face of global condemnation after Belarus forced a flight from Athens to Lithuania carrying to prominent Belarusian dissident to land in Minsk. Roman Protasevich was then escorted from the plane and arrested.
Earlier on Monday, Belarus' foreign ministry insisted the country's authorities acted "in full conformity with international rules" and accused Europe of politicising the incident.
"We are struck by the haste with which some countries and European structures have made openly belligerent statements," spokesman Anatoliy Glaz said.
The Russian Foreign Ministry also criticised the West's response with spokeswoman Maria Zakharova writing on Facebook: "It is shocking that the West calls the incident in Belarusian airspace 'shocking'."
She accused Western countries of hypocrisy, citing "violent abductions, forced landings and illegal arrests."
Last November, the Belarusian security services (KGB) placed Protasevich on the list of "individuals involved in terrorist activities". He was a co-founder of the Nexta Telegram channel that's played a leading role in the wave of protests in Belarus against the 2020 re-election of President Lukashenko, who has held the position since 1994.
How have Europe and the US reacted?
Brussels said it had summoned Belarus' ambassador to the EU, Aleksandr Mikhnevich, to demand the journalist's release.
"Ambassador Mikhnevich was informed of the firm condemnation by the EU institutions and EU member states of the coercive act by which the Belarusian authorities have jeopardised the safety of passengers and crew," read a statement from the EU's foreign affairs service.
"Secretary-General Sannino conveyed the EU’s position that the outrageous action by Belarusian authorities constitutes another blatant attempt to silence all opposition voices in the country and demanded the immediate release of Mr Protasevich."
The European Union's foreign affairs chief, Josep Borrell, said in a statement the arrest constitutes "yet another blatant attempt by Belarusian authorities to silence all opposition voices".
"In carrying out this coercive act, the Belarusian authorities have jeopardised the safety of passengers and crew. An international investigation into this incident must be carried out to ascertain any breach of international aviation rules," he added.
Lithuania said Belarus had effectively held EU citizens hostage by diverting the plane.
"The entire EU has been brutally attacked and must respond in the strictest way," its foreign ministry said.
It called on the 27-country bloc to consider issuing a joint EU recommendation to avoid entering Belarus airspace.
It also wants the International Civil Aviation Authority to strip Belarus of its membership.
US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said Washington "strongly condemn" the Belarusian regime's "brazen and shocking act to divert a commercial flight to arrest a journalist".
"We demand an international investigation and are coordinating with our partners on next steps," he wrote on Twitter.
Both Brussels and Washington have called for Protasevich to be immediately released.
Britain's Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said London is "coordinating with our allies". "This outlandish action by Lukashenko will have serious implications," he said.
Euronews spoke to the President of Cyprus on Monday on the sidelines of the EU summit.
"It is absolutely unacceptable. It's state piracy," said Nicos Anastasiades.
"These authoritarian regimes, they should get the lessons, a lesson or a strong message that such actions are unacceptable against the human rights or against the international order, and therefore they should be received a strong, strong message. That similar actions are unacceptable".
What's the background to this story?
The protest movement emerged following the August 2020 presidential election, which was ruled fraudulent by the opposition and western countries.
It saw weeks of protests as tens of thousands of people gathered in Minsk and other cities - a huge mobilisation for a country of 9.5 million inhabitants.
But the protests gradually faltered in the face of mass arrests and police violence that left at least four people dead, with ongoing judicial harassment and heavy prison sentences imposed on activists and journalists.
The EU has so far slapped sanctions on high-ranking Belarusian officials, including Lukashenko, amid allegations of electoral fraud and the violent repression of protesters. These sanctions consist of a travel ban to the EU and an asset freeze for 88 individuals and 7 entities.
Protasevich, who had fled the country for Poland, faces charges that could carry a prison sentence of up to 15 years.
Exiled Belarus opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya called on the International Civil Aviation Organization to begin an investigation.
“It is absolutely obvious that this is an operation by the special services to hijack an aircraft in order to detain activist and blogger Roman Protasevich,” she said in a statement. “Not a single person who flies over Belarus can be sure of his safety.”