There are fears for the life of a journalist who was arrested when his Ryanair flight was diverted to Belarus.
Roman Protasevich has been detained after his flight from Athens, Greece, was rerouted from its scheduled destination of Vilnius, in Lithuania, to Belarus capital Minsk on Sunday.
The 26-year-old has been described as a “private enemy” of Belarus president Alexander Lukashenko, who has clung to power after what are widely regarded as unfair elections last year.
Speaking to Sky News on Monday, Belarus opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya expressed her fears for Mr Protasevich following his arrest and said that he may have been “tortured”.
Ms Tsikhanouskaya outlined how Mr Lukashenko – dubbed “Europe’s last dictator” – feels able to enjoy “impunity” as he continues his 26-year rule over Belarus.
And she called for “much wider” international sanctions on Mr Lukashenko’s regime.
Ms Tsikhanouskaya was the main rival to Mr Lukashenko in last year’s presidential election in Belarus.
She decided to stand in the election after her husband, Sergei Tikhanovsky, was arrested days after announcing his intention to run.
Describing how a lawyer was trying to get access to Mr Protasevich following his detention in Minsk, Ms Tsikhanouskaya said: “I’m sure that he’s in awful circumstances, I’m sure that he’s been tortured, because he knows a lot of information.
“He was a leader of one famous Telegram channel about civil society and the situation in Belarus.
“And he is considered to be a private enemy of Lukashenko. So we’re really afraid, not only for his freedom but for his life.”
The UK has demanded the immediate release of Mr Protasevich and other political prisoners being held in Belarus.
Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab has also promised to work with international allies on a coordinated response to Mr Lukashenko’s “outlandish actions”, including possible further sanctions.
Latvia’s airBaltic said it is closely monitoring the situation and has “decided to avoid entering Belarus airspace until the situation becomes clearer”.
It added: “The safety and health of our passengers and employees is the main priority.”
A Wizz Air flight to Tallinn in Estonia also appears to have gone around Belarus.
The airline has been contacted for comment.
Ms Tsikhanouskaya, who described Mr Lukashenko as Belarus’s “ex-president”, said Mr Protasevich’s arrest was “the result of impunity”.
“For nine months already we have been fighting against the regime after fraudulent elections, but the regime still feels impunity and you see they use such awful methods of kidnapping people,” she said.
“We have to put much more pressure on this regime for them to stop violence and to release political prisoners.”
She added international sanctions against the Belarus regime “has to be much, much wider” as she called for “more pressure” to force negotiations with Mr Lukashenko and new elections this year.
“In these circumstances when the whole country is against a regime, it’s absolutely unbelievable that the regime will last long,” she said.
“The only question is, how many victims will there be during this fight for freedom and for democracy?”
“I’m sure that these changes will come soon.”
Ryanair chief executive, Michael O’Leary, described the diversion of Mr Protasevich’s flight to Minsk – which Belarus state media claimed was on the basis of a bomb threat – as “piracy” and “state-sponsored hijacking”.
“It appears the intent of the authorities was to remove a journalist and his travelling companion… we believe there were some KGB agents offloaded at the airport as well,” he told Irish radio.
Irish foreign affairs minister Simon Coveney echoed Mr O’Leary’s charge, describing the act as “effectively state-sponsored aviation piracy”.
“It was an Irish airline, a plane is registered in Poland, full of EU nationals, travelling between two EU capitals, flying through Belarusian airspace which would be absolutely normal,” he told Irish broadcaster RTE.
“It was intercepted, there was a warning given to the pilots and crew that there was a security risk on board and then the plane was escorted by a military jet to Minsk airport, which was not the closest airport.”
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken accused Mr Lukashenko’s government of endangering the lives of those on board the aircraft and demanded a “full investigation”.
Labour’s shadow foreign secretary Lisa Nandy told Sky News there had to be “robust consequences” for the action.
Among possible responses, she urged the government to consider fresh sanctions on the Belarus regime, to make Belarus airspace a no-fly zone, to block flights from the Belarus state-owned airline, and to summon the Belarus ambassador to explain their country’s actions.
Mr Raab is expected to answer an urgent question on Mr Protasevich’s arrest in the House of Commons later on Monday.
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