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Belarus arrests activist after forcing Ryanair flight to land in Minsk

Belarus

Belarus arrests activist after forcing Ryanair flight to land in Minsk

Diversion of plane from Athens to Vilnius by Lukashenko labelled ‘act of state terrorism’

Activist Roman Protasevich is detained by police in Minsk in 2017. He formerly worked for Nexta, a Warsaw-based media group that played a prominent role in mass protests in Belarus last year © Sergei Grits/AP

US and European leaders condemned a move by Belarus to force a Ryanair flight bound for Lithuania to land in Minsk so that it could arrest a leading opposition activist who was travelling from Athens to Vilnius.

State media said Roman Protasevich, resident in Lithuania, was detained in the Belarusian capital on Sunday after Ryanair flight FR4978 was diverted to Minsk shortly before it was due to leave Belarusian airspace.

Alexander Lukashenko, Belarus’s president, gave an “irrevocable command to turn the plane around and land it”, according to a post on a semi-official presidential channel on messaging app Telegram.

Protasevich, 26, is the former editor of Nexta, a Warsaw-based media group that played a prominent role in covering and directing the huge protests that erupted against Lukashenko last year after the dictator claimed victory in a deeply flawed election.

Lukashenko has embarked on a sweeping crackdown to shore up his power, with opposition activists and independent journalists among those targeted. In November, Belarus placed Protasevich on a terrorist watchlist and charged him with three protest-related crimes, the most serious of which carries a sentence of up to 15 years in prison.

According to messages sent by Protasevich to colleagues on Sunday, he said he was being followed by a man he suspected was a Belarusian KGB agent while in the departure lounge in Athens. The man stood behind him in the queue to board and tried to take a photo of his documents, the activist told his colleagues. Protasevich said the man then asked him a “stupid question” in Russian and left.

The Ryanair flight that Protasevich boarded turned round near the Lithuanian border and landed in Minsk, according to flight-tracking data. Andrei Gurtsevich, a senior air force commander, said Belarus had decided to scramble a MiG-29 fighter jet to accompany the plane after learning of a bomb threat, according to Belta, the state news agency. Airport officials later said the bomb threat was “false”.

Ryanair said the flight crew were “notified by Belarus [air traffic control] of a potential security threat on board” and instructed to divert to Minsk.

“Nothing untoward was found and authorities cleared the aircraft to depart together with passengers and crew after approximately seven hours on the ground in Minsk,” the company stated. Ryanair “notified the relevant national and European safety and security agencies”.

The news sparked furious responses from world leaders and Belarus’s opposition.

The US condemned the diversion and demanded the release of Protasevich. Antony Blinken, US secretary of state, said: “Given indications the forced landing was based on false pretences, we support the earliest possible meeting of the council of the International Civil Aviation Organization to review these events.”

He added that the US was coordinating with partners “on next steps”.

European officials pledged to discuss “possible sanctions” at an EU meeting on Monday and also demanded Protasevich be released. Nato branded the incident “serious and dangerous”.

Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission president, said the forced landing was “utterly unacceptable”. “Any violation of international air transport rules must bear consequences,” she wrote on Twitter.

Mateusz Morawiecki, Poland’s prime minister, said he would call for “immediate sanctions” against Belarus. “Hijacking of a civilian plane is an unprecedented act of state terrorism. It cannot go unpunished,” he wrote on Twitter.

Lithuania called on the EU to declare Belarusian airspace unsafe and refuse to allow its aircraft to land at the bloc’s airports.

The Ryanair flight at Minsk international airport on Sunday © AFP via Getty Images

Gabrielus Landsbergis, the country’s foreign minister, said the episode constituted “a serious violation of international norms”.

“The entire EU has been brutally attacked and must respond in the strictest way.”

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, Belarus’s exiled opposition leader, wrote on Twitter that “no one flying over Belarus can be secure”.

Belarusian state television said officials initially did not know Protasevich was on the flight, claiming that he remained in the airport undetected until his girlfriend sent a photo of him to another dissident blogger.

But a fellow passenger told Lithuanian news site Delfi that Protasevich began panicking when he realised the plane was heading for Minsk, holding his head in his hands.

Once the plane landed, officials immediately detained Protasevich, who was visibly trembling, and seized his luggage, according to the unnamed passenger.

“We asked him what was happening. He said who he was and added: ‘They’ll execute me here’,” Delfi quoted the passenger as saying.

Nexta has provoked Lukashenko’s ire for publishing leaks from official sources and its coverage of the president’s brutal crackdown on hundreds of thousands of Belarusians who took to the streets following last year’s election. Its channel on Telegram has more than 1.2m subscribers, a huge audience in a country of just 9.5m people.

Additional reporting by Katrina Manson in Washington

Belarus provokes global furore after intercepting Ryanair plane to arrest dissident

May 23 7.29am (UTC)

Ryanair flight FR4978 leaves Athens for Vilnius with 126 passengers on board, including Roman Protasevich, 26, and his girlfriend Sofia Sapega, 23

9.46am

The aircraft changes course as it nears the Lithuanian border after being warned of a “potential security threat” and told to land in Minsk

10.16am

Flight FR4978 lands in Minsk and the couple are arrested, according to state media

17.47pm

After several hours, the flights heads to its original destination and arrives in Vilnius with only 121 passengers, fuelling suspicion that three Belarusian KGB agents had been on board

Ursula von der Leyen, European Commission president, says there must be “consequences” for Belarus’s “outrageous and illegal behaviour”

May 24

Ryanair condemns Belarus, calling its actions “an act of aviation piracy”

UK transport secretary Grant Shapps orders UK airlines to avoid Belarus airspace and suspends national carrier Belavia’s operating permit

Belarus’s foreign ministry insists it acted within international rules while Russia says the EU response is “shocking”

White House press secretary Jen Psaki says the US is “outraged” and calls for an immediate investigation

Brussels agrees “targeted” economic sanctions against President Alexander Lukashenko’s donors

US president Joe Biden welcomes the EU’s decision and asks his team to develop “appropriate options to hold accountable those responsible”

A pro-Lukashenko channel on messaging app Telegram publishes the first footage of Protasevich, appearing bruised, who says he is being treated well

May 25

Russia dismisses the UK’s claim that it was involved in the plot as “obsessive Russophobia

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