(NEW YORK) — Belarus is accused of forcing a Ryanair passenger plane to land in the country so that authorities could arrest a leading blogger who helped organize last year’s protests against the country’s authoritarian leader Alexander Lukashenko.
The Ryanair flight was passing through Belarus’ airspace while traveling from Athens to Lithuania’s capital Vilnius, when it was forced to divert to Minsk for an emergency landing because of a false bomb threat. On the ground, security agents arrested Roman Protasevich, founder of the social media news channel, NEXTA, which played a crucial role in the protests last summer.
Belarusian authorities claimed they had responded to a request for help from the flight about a bomb threat onboard. The plane was then escorted by a Belarusian fighter jet to a Minsk airport.
But Belarus’ opposition and European countries accused Belarusian authorities of using the fake bomb scare to force the plan to land as a part of a pre-planned operation to seize Protasevich.
Nexta’s editor-in-chief Tadeusz Giczan alleged that agents from Belarus’ KGB security service onboard the flight had forced the crew to declare an emergency.
“KGB operatives boarded the plane in Athens this morning together with Roman Protasevich. Then when the plane has entered Belarus airspace KGB officers initiated a fight with the Ryanair crew, insisting there’s an IED onboard. Eventually the crew was forced to send out SOS (literally moments before the plane would’ve left Belarus airspace),” Giczan wrote on Twitter.
The president of the European Union Commission Ursula Von Der Leyen called the move to divert the flight “utterly unacceptable” and warned it must bear consequences.
“ALL passengers must be able to continue their travel to Vilnius immediately and their safety ensured. Any violation of international air transport rules must bear consequences.”
Lithuania’s president Gitanas Nausėda described the situation as “unprecedented” and “abhorrent,” and called for a response from NATO and the European Union.
Ryanair, in a short statement, said the plane was told to divert to Minsk by Belarusian air traffic control because of a “potential security threat on-board”.
The airline said the plane landed safely in Minsk and passengers disembarked while security checks were carried out and that “nothing untoward” was found. It said passengers were allowed to embark after around five hours and that the plane was expected to take off around 7 p.m. local time.
“Ryanair has notified the relevant national and European safety and security agencies and we apologise sincerely to all affected passengers for this regrettably delay which was outside Ryanair’s control,” the airline said. It made no mention of Protasevich in the statement.
NEXTA, the news outlet that Protasevich founded on the Telegram messenger app, has been central to the protests that broke out against Lukashenko last summer. The outlet helped coordinate the largely leaderless demonstrations and published videos of them and police violence that helped catalyze the protests, which saw hundreds of thousands peacefully take to the streets calling for Lukashenko to step down. It and its sister channel NEXTA Live have close to two million subscribers.
Belarus’ authorities placed Protasevich on a terrorism watchlist last year and have opened criminal cases against him on charges of organizing mass riots and inciting hatred, offenses that carry sentences of up to 12 to 15 years in prison. Belarus’ opposition have said they fear he could now face the death penalty.
Protasevich had been in Athens covering a trip by the exiled leader of Belarus’ democracy opposition, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who is now based in Lithuania.
Tikhanovskaya condemned his arrest, calling for an investigation into the incident and more sanctions on Lukashenko’s government.
“Lukashenka’s [sic] regime endangered the lives of passengers onboard the plane. From now – no one flying over Belarus – can be secure. International reaction needed!” she wrote on Twitter.
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