Belarus could face further sanctions as European allies discussed how to respond following the diversion of a Ryanair flight to enable the arrest of an opponent of the country’s regime.
Leaders from the European Union will hold emergency talks to discuss the situation, while Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab hinted at tougher action from the UK.
Mr Raab said he was working with allies on a coordinated response, stating that Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko must be held to account for his “outlandish actions”.
The circumstances which led to the arrest of Roman Protasevich have been described as a hijacking operation by Mr Lukashenko’s government.
Mr Protasevich was on board the flight from Athens to Vilnius when it changed course to head for Minsk after a bomb scare.
Mr Raab said: “The UK condemns yesterday’s actions by the Belarusian authorities, who arrested journalist Roman Protasevich on the basis of a ruse, having forced his flight to land in Minsk.
“Mr Lukashenko must be held to account for his outlandish actions.
“The UK calls for the immediate release of Mr Protasevich and other political prisoners held in Belarus.
“The UK is working with our allies on a coordinated response, including further sanctions.”
He said the International Civil Aviation Organisation’s council should hold an urgent meeting to consider the regime’s flouting of the rules.
The Foreign Secretary will update MPs on the situation on Monday afternoon.
Ryanair boss Michael O’Leary said it was a “state-sponsored hijacking” and claimed agents from Russia’s KGB were also on board the flight.
“I think it’s very frightening for the crew, for the passengers who were held under armed guard, had their bags searched,” he told Newstalk.
“It was clear it appears that the intent of the Russian authorities was to remove a journalist and his traveling companion.
“We believe there was also some KGB agents offloaded from the aircraft as well.”
Ireland’s foreign affairs minister Simon Coveney has said the forced landing of the Ryanair flight was state-sponsored “aviation piracy”.
He told RTE: “The EU has to give a very clear response to this, otherwise we’re giving all the wrong signals.”
In the UK, shadow foreign secretary Lisa Nandy said the Belarusian ambassador in London should be summoned.
She said the incident was “appalling”, telling Times Radio: “If I were the Foreign Secretary today I would be demanding that the ambassador comes to see me in order to demand the release of Roman Protasevich, the journalist who was arrested, and dozens of others who’ve been arrested and detained in similar circumstances over the last few weeks.
“We haven’t seen anything like this before of course, but what we have seen is those who criticise this regime rounded up and arrested, and we should be demanding the release of all of those political prisoners.”
Ms Nandy said the UK should consider blocking flights from Belavia Belarusian Airlines and also whether further sanctions are necessary.
“There has got to be repercussions for this because as I said earlier it tears up the international rules. It just simply cannot be allowed to stand,” she said.
Commons Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Tom Tugendhat said “very strict” sanctions need to be put on the Lukashenko regime and flights over Belarus should be suspended because of safety fears.
He told Times Radio: “In 2014 the Russian government – the closest ally of Lukashenko’s regime in Belarus – shot down a Malaysian aircraft and killed over 200 Dutch tourists.
“These are not idle threats. These are very real threats from a government whose allies and friends have done exactly that only a few years ago.”