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EU rebukes Belarus over plane 'hijacking' to arrest journalist

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European Union leaders have agreed on a set of sanctions against Belarus, including a ban on the use of bloc member’s airspace and airports amid fury over the forced diversion of a passenger jet flying between two EU countries in order to arrest an opposition journalist.

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In what EU leaders have called a brazen “hijacking” of Irish carrier Ryanair’s plane flying from Greece to Lithuania on Sunday, they demanded the immediate release of Raman Protasevich, a key foe of authoritarian Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko.

The EU leaders also decided to slap individual sanction on officials linked to the operation and called on the International Civil Aviation Organisation to start an investigation into what they see as an unprecedented move and what some have called state terrorism.

The decisions at the summit will now be turned into action as soon as legal proceedings allow.

Earlier in the day, Belarus officials said a false bomb threat from Palestinian militant group Hamas was why the plane was diverted to Minsk.

Belarussian authorities released what they said was a text of the bomb alert as officials sought to defuse a mounting international outcry, but Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum denied his group had any knowledge or connection to the incident.

In Minsk, the foreign ministry’s spokesman said Belarus had acted in line with international regulations and a senior transport official read out what he said was the text of the bomb threat.

“We, the soldiers of Hamas, demand that Israel cease fire in the Gaza Strip. We demand that the European Union withdraw its support for Israel in this war,” the head of the transport ministry’s aviation department said.

“There is a bomb on that plane. If you do not comply with our demands, the bomb will explode over Vilnius on 23 May,” he said.

Hamas spokesman Barhoum said the group “has nothing to do with that completely”.

“We don’t resort to these methods, which could be the doing of some suspicious parties that aim to demonise Hamas and foil the state of world sympathy with our Palestinian people and their legitimate resistance,” the Hamas spokesman said.

Igor Golub, head of the Belarusian air force, said the Ryanair crew took the decision to divert to Minsk itself and that the fighter jet was sent to escort it only after it turned to fly towards the Belarusian capital.

The Belarusian foreign ministry spokesman said Minsk would guarantee full transparency in the case and would also be prepared to allow foreign experts to be involved in an investigation.

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