World leaders have expressed their fury after Belarusian authorities ‘hijacked’ a Ryanair flight and forced it to land following a ‘bogus bomb threat’ that was allegedly used as a ploy to arrest a prominent journalist.
The airliner full of tourists made an emergency landing at Minsk Airport in Belarus today after being escorted by a MiG-29 fighter jet amid reports of a bomb on board.
The plane had been travelling from Athens in Greece to Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania.
Once the plane had landed, Roman Protasevich, 26, a critic and opponent of the country’s President Alexander Lukashenko, who was on board, was detained.
Opposition leaders have slammed the incident, saying the plane was forced to land in Minsk as a pretext to detain Protasevich, the founder of Polish-based NEXTA, an opposition news outlet.
The Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis has condemned the forced landing of the airliner, which had flown from Athens earlier today, and demanded the immediate release of all of the passengers.
Reports say Protasevich’s activism has led to him being included on a terror list, for which he could face the death penalty.
A Ryanair flight was forced to land in Belarus following a ‘bogus bomb threat’ that was allegedly used as a ploy to arrest an opposition activist Roman Protasevich (pictured)
The airliner full of tourists made an emergency landing at Minsk Airport today after being escorted by a MiG-29 fighter jet amid reports of a bomb on board
An official Belarus Telegram channel claimed they saved Europe from a terrorist incident in bringing down the Ryanair plane bound for the Lithuanian capital Vilnius.
The Belarus defence ministry confirmed the detention of Protasevich, who had been living in exile.
Human rights centre Vesna also said: ‘Roman Protasevich was detained. He was on the Ryanair flight Athens-Vilnius.’
Data from the flightradar24.com website showed the plane was diverted just two minutes before it was due to cross into Lithuanian airspace.
After several hours in Minsk, the plane took off again for Vilnius, a top EU official said. Protasevich was not on board the flight this time.
Opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, widely seen to have won last year’s presidential election against Lukashenko before being forced into exile, said: ‘It is absolutely obvious that this is an operation by the special services to hijack an aircraft in order to detain the activist and blogger Roman Protasevich.
NEXTA, Protasevich’s outlet, was closely involved in reporting a wave of opposition protests that last year threatened to topple Lukashenko, before he was given backing by Vladimir Putin
‘The regime endangered the safety of passengers on board and all civil aviation for the sake of reprisals against a man who was the editor of the largest Belarusian independent Telegram channels.
‘Only for this he was recognised as a terrorist, and only for this now in Belarus Roman can face the death penalty.’
Belarus is the last country in Europe to use the death penalty.
‘We have already informed the Ryanair office and the International Civil Aviation Organisation, demanding to start an investigation into the incident and take measures up to the exclusion of Belarus from ICAO,’ Tikhanovskaya added.
She warned: ‘From now on, not a single person flying over Belarus can be sure of their safety.
‘After all, the regime is abusing the rules of air traffic in order to capture those who disagree.’
EU member state Lithuania, where Protasevich is based, urged the European Union and NATO to respond.
The Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis condemned the forced landing of the plane to arrest Protasevich.
He said: ‘The forced landing of a commercial plane to detain a journalist is an unprecedented, shocking act. We demand all passengers’ immediate release.
‘Tomorrow’s #EUCO [European Council] must address the need to step up pressure on Belarus. Enough is enough.’
The Belarus authorities claimed its bomb-disposal squad was examining the plane
Belarusian dog handler checks luggage from the Ryanair flight in Minsk International Airport on May 23
Germany called for an immediate explanation, and Ursula von der Leyen, the head of the EU’s executive European Commission, said Belarus’s action was ‘utterly unacceptable’.
British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said: ‘The UK is alarmed by reports of the arrest of journalist Roman Protasevich & circumstances that led to his flight being forced to land in Minsk.
‘We are coordinating with our allies. This outlandish action by Lukashenko will have serious implications.’
The Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said the Ryanair flight had been ‘hijacked’ and accused Lukashenko of a ‘reprehensible act of state terrorism’.
He said he would demand new immediate sanctions against Belarus at a European Council meeting scheduled for tomorrow.
Morawiecki added: ‘Hijacking of a civilian plane is an unprecedented act of state terrorism. It cannot go unpunished.’
The Secretary General of NATO Jens Stoltenberg also said he was closely monitoring the situation.
He said: ‘Closely monitoring forcible landing in Belarus of flight to Vilnius and reported detention of opposition figure Roman Protasevich.
‘This is a serious & dangerous incident which requires international investigation. Belarus must ensure safe return of crew & all passengers.’
The Ryanair flight is parked at Minsk International Airport on Sunday after it was stopped by authorities
Meanwhile the Prime Minister of Estonia Kaja Kallas said: ‘Absolutely inexplicable and shocking reports from Belarus about detaining Roman Protasevich and forcing the plane to land.
‘All passengers should be immediately released and a thorough international investigation should follow. EU must take a stand together.
MEP Roberta Metsola also called for Europe to act now in response to the forced landing.
She said: ‘Now is the time for Europe to act in unison. Extended sanctions, independent international investigations and immediate release of dissidents.
‘We must be able to guarantee safety and security of air passenger travel. Leaders meeting at #EUCO tomorrow must act.’
The incident is certain to worsen already dire relations between the West and Belarus, which has been tightly controlled since 1994 by President Alexander Lukashenko.
Opponents accuse him of rigging a presidential election in his own favour last year and of then cracking down violently on the opposition. He denies electoral fraud.
Police officers detained Roman Protasevich after he was attempting to cover a rally in Minsk, Belarus on 26 March 2017
Meanwhile, British Conservative MP Damian Collins condemned the ‘hijacking’ in a statement today.
He said: ‘This is an appalling act of hijacking by a rogue state.
‘Belarus must release Roman Protasevich, give him safe passage to Lithuania and compensate the airline and passengers. Without this they should face serious sanctions.’
Ryanair said in a statement that the plane’s crew was notified by Belarus of a potential security threat on board and were instructed to divert to the nearest airport, Minsk.
The plane landed safely, passengers were offloaded and security checks were made by local authorities, it said, saying it expected the aircraft to resume its journey later on Sunday.
Protasevich, 26, worked for an online opposition news service NEXTA, a Telegram channel that broadcast footage of mass protests against Lukashenko last year at a time when it was hard for foreign media to do so.
Protasevich, who now works for a different Telegram channel called Belamova and who describes himself on Twitter ironically as the first ‘journalist-terrorist’ in history, is based in Lithuania.
He is wanted in Belarus on extremism charges and stands accused of organising mass riots and of inciting social hatred, allegations he denies.
The Ryanair plane, which was carrying blogger Roman Protasevich and was diverted to Belarus, lands at Vilnius Airport in Vilnius, Lithuania on Sunday
Belarusian news agency BelTA reported that Lukashenko had personally ordered the warplane to escort the Ryanair plane to Minsk. No explosives were found, it said.
Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda called 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.
Lithuanian presidential adviser Asta Skaisgiryte said the operation to force the plane carrying around 170 people from 12 countries to land seemed to be pre-planned.
Protasevich had said that at Athens airport a bald Russian-speaking middle-aged man had attempted to film the main page of his passport.
He then turned and left.
NEXTA was closely involved in reporting a wave of opposition protests that last year threatened to topple Lukashenko, before he was given backing by Vladimir Putin
A message being retweeted in Russia read: ‘Detention of Protasevich (NEXTA) is a splendid, beautiful, complicated, (operation) in the best traditions of the Soviet KGB, the work of the Belorussian CHEKA (state security). You are cool!’
NEXTA reported: ‘Protasevich was on board a flight heading from Athens to Vilnius. He faces the death penalty in Belarus.
‘The Lukashists [derogatory term for supporters of embattled President Lukashenko] seized the plane in order to arrest Protasevich,’ the channel said.
The Belarus authorities claimed its bomb-disposal squad was examining the plane.
The official Minsk version said: ‘Belarus defended Europe. Information has been received that the plane has been mined.’
The plane had almost left Belarus air space but was forced to land in Minsk.
‘The situation was immediately reported to the President. Lukashenko gave an unconditional command to turn the plane around and receive it.
‘In this situation, the most important thing is the safety and lives of people.’
The Belarusian department for organised crime control reported that Protasevich had been detained before deleting the statement from its Telegram channel.
Around 35,000 people have been detained in Belarus since August, human rights groups say. Dozens have received jail terms. Authorities say that more than 1,000 criminal cases have been launched.