Roman Protasevich was detained in Minsk after his flight made an emergency landing under orders from President Alexander Lukashenko, prompting international condemnation.
A founder of a messaging app channel that has been a key information conduit for opponents of Belarus’ president has been arrested after an airliner he was traveling on was diverted to Belarus because of a bomb threat.
The presidential press service said President Alexander Lukashenko personally ordered that a MiG-29 fighter jet accompany the Ryanair plane – traveling from Athens, Greece, to Vilnius, Lithuania – to the Minsk airport.
Passengers on the flight FR4978 described the anxious minutes for Protasevich after he realised that the plane was being diverted to Minsk.
"He started panicking and saying this was because of him," Monika Simkiene, a 40-year-old Lithuanian, told AFP after the plane finally landed in Vilnius several hours later than its scheduled arrival time.
"He just turned to people and said he was facing the death penalty," she said, adding that once Protasevich understood that he was about to be detained after the plane had landed , he looked "very calm".
Another passenger, Mantas, who declined to give his surname, also said that Protasevich was "nervous at first, but later when he understood he can't change anything, he calmed down and accepted it".
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Pratasevich is a co-founder of the Telegram messaging app’s Nexta channel, which Belarus last year declared as extremist after it was used to help organise major protests against Lukashenko.
Pratasevich, who had fled the country for Poland, faces charges that could carry a prison sentence of up to 15 years.
The presidential press service said the bomb threat was received while the plane was over Belarusian territory; officials later said no explosives were found onboard.
Ryanair said nothing untoward was found on the plane.
Security checks were completed by local authorities on the passengers, the Irish airline said in a statement.
Exiled opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya called on the International Civil Aviation Organization to begin an investigation.
“It is absolutely obvious that this is an operation by the special services to hijack an aircraft in order to detain activist and blogger Raman Pratasevich,” she said in a statement. “Not a single person who flies over Belarus can be sure of his safety.”
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Germany demands explanation
Germany demanded that Belarus immediately explain why it ordered the flight to land and then detained Pratasevich on arrival.
"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," Foreign Ministry State Secretary Miguel Berger tweeted.
We need an immediate explanation by the Government of #Belarus on the diversion of a Ryan Air flight within the EU to Minsk and the alleged detention of a journalist.— Miguel Berger (@MiguelBergerAA) May 23, 2021
Lithuania launches terror investigation, urge release
The diverted flight held for several hours in Belarus finally landed in Lithuania, according to an AFP reporter at the airport.
The Ryanair flight was shown as having landed on an arrivals screen at Vilnius airport.
Lithuanian prosecutors launched a criminal investigation into the forced landing of the flight to Vilnius in Minsk, the General Prosecutors office said in a statement.
The charges under investigation include hijacking of a plane for terrorism purposes and treatment of humans in violation of international treaties, it said in the statement.
Lithuanian Prime Minister Ingrida Simonyte told reporters several people arriving on the plane were asked to give evidence immediately after arriving on Sunday.
"The unprecedented situation will have to be investigated very thoroughly," she said, speaking at the airport after meeting with the passengers on the diverted airplane.
Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda demanded that Belarus releases Protasevich.
The Ryanair commercial flight was directed to land "by force", the president said in an emailed statement.
"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," the president said.
He promised to discuss this on Monday at an EU summit.
Unprecedented event! A civilian passenger plane flying to Vilnius was forcibly landed in #Minsk. Belarusian political activist & founder of @NEXTA_EN was on the plane. He is arrested. 🇧🇾 regime is behind the abhorrent action. I demand to free Roman Protasevič urgently!— Gitanas Nausėda (@GitanasNauseda) May 23, 2021
EU summit to discuss possible sanctions
European Union leaders will discuss toughening their sanctions regime against Belarus on Monday at their planned summit.
A spokesman said European Council president Charles Michel "will put tomorrow the question of the forced landing of Ryanair flight in Minsk. Consequences and possible sanctions will be discussed at this occasion."
NATO demands probe
The NATO military alliance demanded an international investigation into Belarus' diversion of the passenger flight and arrest of an opposition activist.
"We are closely monitoring the forcible landing in Belarus of a Ryanair plane flying from Athens to Vilnius, and the reported detention of opposition figure Roman Protasevich," NATO secretary general Jens Stoltenberg tweeted. "This is a serious and dangerous incident, which requires international investigation."
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Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki branded as an "act of state terrorism" the arrest of Protasevich after his flight was forced to make an emergency landing.
"I condemn in the strongest terms the detention of Roman Protasevich by Belarusian authorities, after a Ryanair passenger aircraft was hijacked. This is a reprehensible act of state terrorism," he said on Twitter.
US condemns forced diversion
Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that the United States "strongly condemned" Belarus for forcing the flight to land in Minsk.
The United States "strongly condemns the forced diversion of a flight between two EU member states and the subsequent removal and arrest of journalist Raman Pratasevich in Minsk. We demand his immediate release," Blinken said in a statement. "This shocking act perpetrated by the Lukashenka regime endangered the lives of more than 120 passengers, including US citizens."