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Merkel says Russia's role in Belarus incident isn't clear

May 25, 2021

Chancellor Angela Merkel has said questions remain about the role of Russia in the forced landing of a plane by Belarus. She also said a video showing arrested dissident Raman Pratasevich in custody gave rise to concern.

The Ryanair plane that was carrying opposition figure Raman Pratasevich arrives in Vilnius, Lithuania
The Ryanair plane carrying opposition figure Raman Pratasevich was later allowed to proceed to VilniusImage: Mindaugas Kulbis/AP Photo/picture alliance

The German chancellor on Tuesday said unanswered questions remained about Russia's involvement in the forced landing of a plane by Belarus.

Angela Merkel said a Kremlin connection had been discussed at an EU summit focused on Minsk's diversion of a Ryanair flight — and the arrest of a dissident journalist on board.

"We touched on the question of whether Russia had anything to do with it," Merkel said in Brussels after the summit. "We did not have any firm findings on Russia's role," she said.

The chancellor said she would raise the issue at a future meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Merkel previously described Belarus' contention that it was simply responding to a credible security threat on board the plane was "completely implausible." 

Russia sides with ex-Soviet ally

Western powers denounced Sunday's scrambling of a warplane to escort the Athens to Vilnius Ryanair passenger jet as "state piracy."

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg described the incident as "state hijacking," and both France and Ireland have labeled it as piracy. Brussels responded with new sanctions on Belarus and requested EU carriers to refrain from flying over Belarusian airspace.

Moscow, however, says Minsk's actions were "absolutely reasonable."

British Foreign Minister Dominic Raab on Monday said a Russian role in the operation appeared likely.

"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," Raab told the UK parliament.

Kremlin denies involvement

Russia has denied involvement and accused Western countries of hypocrisy. In particular, it noted that a Bolivian presidential plane was diverted to Austria in 2013 after reports that US intelligence leaker Edward Snowden was on board.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov on Tuesday claimed that anti-Russian sentiment had fueled initial allegations that Moscow was involved.

Peskov also said he hoped that 26-year-old Pratasevich's girlfriend Sofia Sapega, a Russian citizen detained along with the Belarusian journalist, would soon be released.

Blogger Raman Pratasevich
Blogger Raman Pratasevich appeared in a video looking bruised and making a confessionImage: Telegram/Social Media/dpa/picture alliance

Russia confirmed on Tuesday that the 23-year-old law student was being held by Belarus under suspicion of crimes at the time of protests in the country last year.

Three other passengers also left the plane at Minsk on Sunday before it was allowed to proceed to the Lithuanian capital. Initial assertions that the three passengers had been Russian passport holders turned out to be false.

'Naivety towards Russian relations fading'

Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas told DW that, after the EU leaders' discussions, she believed the Belarus incident may have helped shift EU perspectives on Russia. “I think the naivety toward Russian relations is fading,” she said after talks with other EU leaders in Brussels.

“After Belarus — where we were very united — we also had a discussion on Russia. And these two are very interlinked."

"We saw that even some countries that were previously a bit skeptical regarding Russia's deeds were now very shocked. I think the naivety towards Russian relations is fading," Kallas said.

Video of dissident 'concerning'

A video emerged on Monday showing Pratasevich confessing to some accusations leveled against him, with apparent bruising to the face.

In further comments after the summit, Merkel said the video was "concerning" and described the forced landing as "an unprecedented and unacceptable act."

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said Belarusian President Alexander Lukasahenko must pay a "bitter price" for detaining Pratasevich.

rc/nm (AFP, dpa, Reuters, AP)