The UK government has told airlines to avoid Belarusian airspace after a Ryanair flight was diverted to Minsk and an opposition journalist arrested.
However, Ryanair said in a statement that Belarus' air traffic control had instructed the plane to detour to the capital.
Why did the plane have to land?
European Union leaders were particularly forceful in their condemnation of the arrest and the move against the plane, which was flying between two of the bloc's member nations and was being operated by an airline based in Ireland, also a member. Under the pretext of responding to a bomb threat, Alexsander Lukashenko, the president of Belarus, sent a bomber to escort the plane to the Belarusian capital, where Protasevich was arrested.
The former Belarus culture minister and diplomat based this claim on "information" that the council had received, but he did not provide further details. The plane was combed through as well, but no explosives were found. I searched the plane but couldn't find the bomb.
Lukashenko's press said he had ordered the fighters to accompany the plane after being informed of the threat of the bomb.More news: Journalist Arrested After Plane Forced Down in Belarus
Mr. Coveney said he did not know for certain if reports that Belarusian KGB officials were on the Ryanair plane were true.
The Belarusian activist who was aboard the flight Sunday is an ex-editor for Nexta, an online network critical of Lukashenko.
Interior Ministry spokeswoman Olga Chemodanova declined to comment. Pratasevich, his girlfriend and the EHU students account for three of the six who did not proceed to Vilnius. He is also on a list of terrorists compiled by Belarusian authorities and, if officially charged with terrorism, could face the death penalty.
Upon landing, leading regime critic, journalist and opposition figure Roman Protasevich was arrested by authorities and is now being held in jail.
The growing tensions were in evidence as Belarus 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.
Opponents accuse him of rigging a presidential election in his own favour previous year and of then cracking down violently on the opposition.More news: Nyiragongo volcano has erupted
Blinken said the "regime endangered the lives of more than 120 passengers, including USA citizens".
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and European Council President Charles Michel were also among those who expressed dismay.
Exiled opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya called on the International Civil Aviation Organisation to open an investigation into what happened.
Speaking on RTÉ's Morning Ireland programme, Mr. Coveney said the European Union must give a "very clear response" to the incident. "Not a single person who flies over Belarus can be sure of his safety", she added in a statement. The Lukashenko regime has retaliated by targeting members of the Polish minority in Belarus: in the last few months, several Poles in Belarus have been arrested, including Andrzej Poczobut, a journalist and member of the Association of Poles in Belarus. "Nothing untoward was found", it said. "I am a refugee", Protasevic pleaded with the cabin crew, to no avail, according to other Belarusian passengers who described the scene afterward.
Belarus insisted it had acted legally, accusing the West of making "unfounded accusations" for political reasons.
The campaign targeting opposition and independent media follows mass protests against Lukashenko. The longtime leader was re-elected for a sixth term in a disputed election in August 2020. While protests have largely fizzled out after more than 30,000 people were arrested and thousands more fled the country, authorities continue to crack down on dissent.More news: Pfizer and AstraZeneca 'highly effective' against India Covid variant