A Ryanair passenger flight from Athens to Vilnius was diverted while in Belarusian airspace on Sunday over a supposed bomb threat, prompting a global outcry to Minsk's forced landing of the aircraft to arrest a dissident journalist.

Protesters during a demonstration of Belarusians living in Poland and Poles supporting them in front of European Commission office in Warsaw demanding freedom for Belarus opposition activist Raman Protasevich in Warsaw, Poland, Monday, May 24, 2021.
Protesters during a demonstration of Belarusians living in Poland and Poles supporting them in front of European Commission office in Warsaw demanding freedom for Belarus opposition activist Raman Protasevich in Warsaw, Poland, Monday, May 24, 2021. (Czarek Sokolowski / AP)

EU leaders have agreed to impose sanctions and cut air links with Belarus, as leader Alexander Lukashenko's regime paraded a dissident journalist arrested after his flight was forced to land in Minsk.

Meeting in Brussels on Monday, the 27 national leaders of the bloc demanded an immediate release of dissident Roman Protasevich and Sofia Sapega, as well as an investigation by the International Organization for Civilian Aviation into a Sunday incident during which Belarus forced a Ryanair flight to land in Minsk.

They expressed solidarity with their peer Latvia after it said it was expelling the Belarusian ambassador and all diplomats in a tit-for-tat response to Minsk, which had told the Baltic state's envoy to leave.

READ MORE: Belarus opposition figure's arrest in diverted flight draws criticism

The bloc also said it would adopt further "targeted economic sanctions" against the Belarusian authorities to add to the 88 regime figures and seven companies already on a blacklist over a crackdown on opposition.

Foreign and other EU ministers will now be tasked with formalising these political decisions announced by Barend Leyts, spokesman for EU summit chairman Charles Michel, after two hours of talks at a summit in Brussels.

The move came as Belarusian state television broadcast a 30-second video of Protasevich, who had been living between Lithuania and Poland, confirming that he was in prison in Minsk and "confessing" to charges of organising mass unrest.

The footage showed Protasevich – who could face 15 years in jail – with dark markings visible on his forehead, saying he was being treated "according to the law".

"This is how (Roman) looks under physical and moral pressure," exiled Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya wrote on Twitter.

The EU leaders demanded the "immediate release" of Protasevich and Sapega, the conclusions of the summit said.

'Outrageous behaviour'

The forced landing of an airliner flying between EU nations has refocused attention on the festering political crisis in Belarus, where Lukashenko has unleashed waves of brutal repression to cling to power.

Western leaders accused Belarusian authorities of essentially hijacking a European plane, while Minsk claimed it had reacted to secure the flight after receiving a bomb threat.

READ MORE: Lukashenko: I will resign once Belarus adopts new constitution

"It is outrageous behaviour and Lukashenko and his regime have to understand that this will have severe consequences," EU chief Ursula von der Leyen said.

The EU's push to punish Minsk followed announcements from some nations and airlines that they were cutting links to Belarus.

London also said it had issued instructions for British aircraft to avoid Belarusian airspace.

Ukraine said it would halt direct flights between the two countries and over Belarus, while Scandinavian airline SAS, Germany's Lufthansa and Latvia-based regional airline Air Baltic said they would be avoiding Belarusian airspace.

In a bid to heighten pressure on Lukashenko, Berlin, London and Brussels summoned the Belarusian ambassadors.

'Completely implausible'

Belarus has insisted it acted legally over the grounding of the Ryanair jet, accusing the West of making "unfounded accusations" for political reasons.

Its air force chief said the plane's captain had decided to land in Belarus "without outside interference" and that the pilot could have chosen to go to Ukraine or Poland.

A senior Belarusian transport official said the authorities received a letter claiming to be from the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas threatening to blow up the plane over Vilnius unless the EU renounced support for Israel.

READ MORE: Belarus opposition leader flees country amid crackdown on protests

German Chancellor Angela Merkel dismissed Minsk's explanations as "completely implausible" and the EU demanded a probe by the International Civil Aviation Organization.

The ICAO, a UN agency, is to meet on Thursday.

United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres backed calls for a "full, transparent and independent investigation into this disturbing incident".

'Shocking act'

NATO slammed a "serious and dangerous incident" and said envoys from the military alliance were to discuss it on Tuesday.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken called it "a shocking act".

The EU and other Western countries have already imposed a wide range of sanctions on Lukashenko's government over its crackdown on opposition demonstrations that followed his disputed re-election to a sixth term last August.

But Lukashenko has remained defiant with help from his main backer Russia.

Britain's Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab raised the possibility of that Russian had backed the operation.

"It's very difficult to believe that this kind of action could have been taken without at least the acquiescence of the authorities in Moscow," he told parliament.

But Moscow has dismissed the outrage in the West.

READ MORE: Lukashenko sworn in as Belarus president at 'secret' ceremony

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Minsk was taking an "absolutely reasonable approach" while ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova mocked the Western indignation.

"We are shocked that the West calls the incident in Belarusian air space 'shocking,'" Zakharova said on Facebook, accusing Western nations of "kidnappings, forced landings and illegal arrests".

Together with co-founder Stepan Putilo, Protasevich until recently ran the Nexta channel on messaging app Telegram, which helped organise the protests that were the biggest challenge to Lukashenko's 26-year rule.

With close to two million subscribers on Telegram, Nexta Live and its sister channel Nexta are prominent opposition channels and helped mobilise protesters in Belarus.

Protasevich and Putilo were added to Belarus's list of "individuals involved in terrorist activity" last year.

The spiralling tensions around Belarus were in evidence as Minsk expelled the entire staff of Latvia's embassy, including the ambassador, after accusing Latvian authorities of having used an opposition flag at an ice hockey championship.

Source: AFP