Lukashenko critic held after Ryanair flight diverted to Belarus in ‘attack on democracy’

European Commission condemns ‘outrageous and illegal behaviour of the regime’ in Minsk

Andy Gregory,Matt Mathers
Monday 24 May 2021 00:20 BST
<p>No devices were found on the plane, which was cleared to depart after some hours on the ground at Minsk International Airport</p>

No devices were found on the plane, which was cleared to depart after some hours on the ground at Minsk International Airport

Belarus has sparked outrage after an opponent of authoritarian president Alexander Lukashenko was arrested when the plane he was travelling on was diverted to Minsk because of an alleged bomb threat.

Roman Protasevich, co-founder of the Telegram messaging app's Nexta channel, was detained by officials at an airport in the Belarusian capital on Sunday after his Ryanair flight landed.

Supporters of Mr Protasevich accused those close to the president of hatching a plot to have Mr Protasevich locked up, claiming a bomb scare was used to have the aircraft grounded while flying over Belarus.

The presidential press service said Mr Lukashenko personally ordered a MiG-29 fighter jet to escort the Ryanair plane – traveling from Athens, Greece, to Vilnius, Lithuania – to the Minsk airport.

A Ryanair spokesperson would only confirm that its plane had been grounded temporarily due to a potential security threat onboard. Checks were completed by local authorities and “nothing untoward was found”, the spokesperson added.

The plane was eventually allowed to depart Minsk for Vilnius.

Politicians in the UK and elsewhere quickly condemned the alleged move by Mr Lukashenko, who continues to crack down on opposition figures in the wake of last year's presidential election, widely believed to have been rigged.

Dominic Raab, the foreign secretary, tweeted: “The UK is alarmed by reports of the arrest of @nexta_tv 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 Belarusian interior ministry confirmed Mr Protasevich, who had fled the country for Poland, was arrested at the airport. Officials last year declared Mr Protasevich's Nexta channel to be extremist after it was used to help organise major protests against Mr Lukashenko.

He faces charges that could carry a prison sentence of up to 15 years. Allies claimed he may be sentenced to death.

Lithuania’s president Gitanas Nauseda accused Belarus of landing the plane in Minsk “by force” and called for Mr Protasevich to be released. “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,” he said.

A Nato spokesperson said the alliance was monitoring the “serious and dangerous incident” and said everyone who had been on the plane should be freed.

Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko personally ordered a fighter jet to escort the passenger plane

Ursula von der Leyen, president of the EU Commission, tweeted: “The outrageous and illegal behaviour of the regime in Belarus will have consequences. Those responsible for the #Ryanair hijacking must be sanctioned. Journalist Roman Protasevich must be released immediately.”

And Greek prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis 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 must address the need to step up pressure on Belarus. Enough is enough.”

EU leaders will discuss the incident at a European Council meeting on Monday, the body’s president Charles Michel said. “I call on Belarus authorities to immediately release the detained passenger and to fully guarantee his rights,” he added.

Antony Blinken, the US secretary of state, said Washington deplored the “shocking act perpetrated by the Lukashenko regime [which] endangered the lives of more than 120 passengers, including US citizens”. Mr Blinken said he wanted the Council of the International Civil Aviation Organisation to meet as soon as possible to review the incident.

It comes less than a year after opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya lost an election to long-time Belarusian ruler Mr Lukashenko.

Ms Tikhanovskaya, who fled to neighbouring Lithuania after the vote, tweeted that Mr Protasevich should be released immediately, and called for an investigation into the incident. She also said Belarus should be sanctioned.

“The regime forced the landing @Ryanair plane in Minsk to arrest journalist and activist Roman Protasevich,” she said. “He faces the death penalty in Belarus. We demand immediate release of Roman, @ICAO investigation, and sanctions against Belarus.”

Months of protests arose after the election, the official results of which gave Mr Lukashenko a sixth term in office. Police cracked down on the protests harshly, detaining some 30,000 people and beating many of them.

Although protests died down during the winter, Belarus has continued to take action against the opposition and against independent news media. Last week, 11 staff members of the Tut.By news website were detained by police.

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