Moscow: Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko on Sunday personally ordered a fighter jet to intercept a Ryanair flight carrying a young opposition blogger, forcing it to redirect and land in Belarus.
The Boeing aircraft, flying from the Greek capital Athens to Vilnius, had almost reached Lithuania when it changed direction and was escorted to the Belarusian capital of Minsk.
Roman Protasevich, pictured here being detained at a protest in Minsk in 2017, is a well-known opposition activist.Credit:AP
On arrival, police detained activist Roman Protasevich, 26, who had been on a wanted list after last year’s mass street protests in the wake of an election in which Lukashenko claimed a landslide but disputed victory.
Ryanair released a statement saying the plane crew had been notified by Belarus of a “potential security threat on board” and were insttructed to divert to the nearest airport, Minsk.
Reports suggest that, at the time, the “security threat” was understood to mean explosives, though none were found after landing.
Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda condemned Belarus’s actions, demanding Protasevich be released and calling on for an international response.
“I call on NATO and EU allies to immediately react to the threat posed to international civil aviation by the Belarus regime. The international community must take immediate steps that this does not repeat,” Nauseda said.
Ryanair, a budget carrier registered in Ireland, is one of Europe’s largest airlines.Credit:Bloomberg
Lithuanian presidential adviser Asta Skaisgiryte said the operation to force-land the plane carrying around 170 people from 12 countries seemed to be pre-planned.
She said Belarusian intelligence services knew who was on the plane, which was forced to land after it was intercepted by a MIG-29 fighter jet. Protasevich had lived in Vilnius since November, she said.
Belarus’s President Alexander Lukashenko.Credit:AP
Lithuania and traditional Russian ally Belarus are neighbours and former members of the Soviet Union. Lithuania is now a member of the European Union. Belarus is not.
The European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said on Twitter that all passengers on the flight should be allowed to resume their journeys. The statement implied that Protasevich, too, should be released and allowed to leave Belarus for Lithuania.
“Any violation of international air transport rules must bear consequences,” she added.
The Belarus department for organised crime control reported that Protasevich had been detained, but then deleted the statement from its Telegram channel.
Condemnation was swift – and harsh – from countries across Europe on Sunday.
“We need an immediate explanation by the government of Belarus on the diversion of a Ryanair flight within the EU to Minsk and the alleged detention of a journalist,” Germany’s Foreign Ministry State Secretary Miguel Berger tweeted.
Norbert Roettgen, chairman of Germany’s lower house foreign affairs committee, described the forced landing as “a case of state terrorism”.
“There would need to be definite consequences by the EU,” he tweeted.
Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said he had asked the European Council to discuss immediate sanctions against Belarus during a meeting scheduled for Monday.
He described the flight as having been “hijacked”.
“I condemn in the strongest terms the detention of Roman Protasevich by Belarusian authorities after a Ryanair passenger aircraft was hijacked,” he said.
“This is a reprehensible act of state terrorism.”
In power since 1994, Lukashenko launched a violent crackdown on the 2020 street protests. Around 35,000 people have been detained since August, human rights groups say. Dozens have received jail terms. Authorities say that more than 1000 criminal cases have been launched.
Protasevich is one of the founders of the opposition news service NEXTA, a Telegram channel that has become one of the main sources of news about demonstrations in Belarus. It is hostile to Lukashenko and helps to co-ordinate protests.
Belarusian opposition politician Svetlana Tikhanouskaya, Lukashenko’s main rival at the last election, said Belarus authorities “placed at risk safety of passengers on board and all of the civil aviation for the sake of punishment of the man who was an editor of Belarus’s largest independent Telegram channel”.
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