Belarus forces emergency landing of Ryanair flight to arrest exiled journalist on board

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Raman Pratasevich, being detained in Minsk, Belarus, in 2017 -  Sergei Grits/AP
Raman Pratasevich, being detained in Minsk, Belarus, in 2017 - Sergei Grits/AP

European governments accused Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko of "state terrorism" and "hijacking" after he sent a fighter jet to force a Ryanair flight to make an emergency landing apparently so he could arrest an exiled opposition journalist.

The European Union and the US condemned an "utterly unacceptable" attack on civil aviation and Lithuania demanded a Nato response after the flight from Athens to Vilnius was forced to land in Minsk on Sunday afternoon.

Minsk airport said the flight was forced to land because of a bomb threat.

No bomb was found when the plane was searched, but Belarusian officials took the opportunity to arrest Roman Protasevich, a founder and editor of Nexta, a social media channel that reported on mass protests that broke out last summer against Mr Lukashenko.

Dominic Raab, the Foreign Secretary, said the UK was "alarmed" by Mr Protasevich's detention and the flight diversion. "We are coordinating with our allies.

"This outlandish action by Lukashenko will have serious implications," he said on Twitter.

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawieck said the aircraft had been "hijacked" in a "reprehensible act of state terrorism" and called for fresh sanctions against Belarus in response.

A Belarusian dog handler checks luggage from Ryanair flight FR4978 after it was forced to land in Minsk  -  AFP
A Belarusian dog handler checks luggage from Ryanair flight FR4978 after it was forced to land in Minsk - AFP

Belarus last year designated Nexta an extremist organisation and has called for Mr Protasevich's extradition from Poland, where the channel’s editorial team is based. He faces 15 years in jail if convicted.

Belarusian state media said Mr Lukashenko had personally given the order for the plane to land at Minsk following the alert, and sent a MiG-29 jet to accompany the plane in its descent.

Ryanair said in a statement that the aircraft after the crew were "notified by Belarus ATC of a potential security threat on board and were instructed to divert to the nearest airport, Minsk."

It said "nothing untoward was found" and that the aircraft was cleared to leave with passengers and crew after five hours on the ground. It made no mention of Mr Protasevich's arrest.

A Lithuanian airport official said they had received no information about a potential explosive and said they believed the Ryanian plane had to land because of a conflict between a passenger and a member of the crew.

A Nexta journalist reported the conflict had been staged by Belarusian KGB officers who had followed Mr Protasevich on board in order to force the landing.

Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the exiled leader of the Belarusian opposition, said Minsk authorities had deliberately diverted the plane to arrest Mr Protasevich.

She called for his immediate release and further sanctions against Belarus.

That demand was echoed by European officials.

"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," said Gitanas Nauseda, the Lithuanian President.

Germany called for Belarus to provide an “immediate explanation” of what had happened, while EU President Ursula von der Leyen said it was “utterly unacceptable to force Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilniun to land in Minsk.”

She added that “any violation of international air transport rules must bear consequences”.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the US "strongly condemns" the forced diversion of the flight and the subsequent removal and arrest of Mr Protasevich.

"We demand his immediate release," he said. "This shocking act perpetrated by the Lukashenka regime endangered the lives of more than 120 passengers, including US citizens.

"Initial reports suggesting the involvement of the Belarusian security services and the use of Belarusian military aircraft to escort the plane are deeply concerning and require full investigation."

Mr Protasevich, 26, had accompanied Ms Tikhanovskaya during a visit to Greece and meetings with officials there, according to his posts on social media.

 Exiled opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanovskaya called on the International Civil Aviation Organization to begin an investigation. -  Mindaugas Kulbis/AP
Exiled opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanovskaya called on the International Civil Aviation Organization to begin an investigation. - Mindaugas Kulbis/AP

The opposition leader herself has been based in Lithuania after fleeing Belarus last summer, after apparent threats to her children.

She stood against Mr Lukashenko in presidential elections, which she says she would have won had they been free and fair.

The arrest comes amid a wider crackdown by Belarusian authorities on opposition media.

This month, officials raided the offices of the independent outlet Tut.by, arrested a number of editorial staff, and blocked access to the site.

Protests broke out in Belarus after Mr Lukashenko, who has ruled the ex-Soviet nation with an iron fist for 27 years, claimed victory in a rigged election in August last year.

Police responded with violence to the rallies, using teargas, batons and stun grenades on demonstrators and arresting thousands.

At one point those demonstrations seemed close to toppling the regime, but Mr Lukashenko clung to power with support from long-time ally Russia.

The UK and EU imposed sanctions on Belarusian officials over the violence. Several top opposition figures, journalists and activists have since been arrested or forced into exile.

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