The Ryanair jet carrying scores of passengers finally landed at its original destination in Lithuania after Belarus earlier forced the plane transiting its airspace to land in order to arrest a journalist on board.
The Boeing Co. 737-800 was flying from Athens to Vilnius on May 23. The jet had almost reached Lithuania when it was diverted to the Belarus’ Minsk under the escort of a MiG-29 fighter jet after its crew was notified by authorities in Minsk of a “potential security threat on board.” Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, often referred to as “Europe’s last dictator,” personally ordered the fighter jet to escort the Ryanair plane.
Minsk’s airport had released a statement saying the plane had to make an emergency landing there following a bomb scare.
Roman Protasevich (26), the young opposition blogger, was detained on arrival at the Belarusian capital. He had been living at Vilnius since November 2020. He was put on the “wanted list” after he covered mass street protests against Lukashenko. While the leader claimed a landslide victory, his election to a sixth term last year was internationally disputed. Protasevich was the editor-in-chief of Nexta, one of the most popular Telegram news channels in Belarus.
“The plane was checked, no bomb was found and all passengers were sent for another security search,” said Nexta after its former editor was apprehended.
The incident has drawn sharp criticism since it is an unprecedented violation of European air travel protocols.
“Roman is a well-known Belarusian activist and blogger. In 2019, he left Belarus because of the threat to his freedom for cooperation with the independent Telegram channel Nexta. Belarusian security forces opened several criminal cases against him, and the KGB of Belarus included Protasevich on the list of persons involved in terrorist activities. Now his life is in danger," Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, former presidential candidate of Belarus, said. She revealed that just a week ago, she was returning to Vilnius on the same flight as the detained Protasevich.
Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda condemned Belarus’s actions, demanding Protasevich be released and calling on for an international response.
Lithuanian presidential adviser Asta Skaisgiryte said the operation to force-land the plane carrying around 170 people from 12 countries seemed to be pre-planned. She was quoted as saying by Reuters that Belarus intelligence services knew who was onboard the plane which is the reason why the plane was force-landed.
The U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement, “The United States strongly condemns the forced diversion of a flight between two EU member states and the subsequent removal and arrest of journalist Roman Protasevich.”
“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.”
NATO Secretary Jens Stoltenberg tweeted, “This is a serious and dangerous incident, which requires international investigation.”
“The outrageous and illegal behaviour of the regime in Belarus will have consequences,” EU chief Ursula von der Leyen tweeted, calling for Protasevich’s release, and adding that those responsible “must be sanctioned."