Disbelief as Belarus 'hijacks' passenger plane, journalist detained

·5-min read

A false bomb alert has diverted a commercial Ryanair flight in Europe to Belarus in an "unprecedented" and "utterly unacceptable" move to arrest an opposition-aligned journalist.

Belarusian authorities scrambled a fighter jet to force the plane to land on Sunday (local time) and then detained passenger Roman Protasevich, drawing criticism from across Europe and the rest of the world with fears he could potentially face the death penalty.

In the dramatic incident, described by one EU leader as a hijacking, a Soviet-era MiG-29 fighter jet escorted a Ryanair-operated passenger plane flying from Athens to Lithuania. The plane was suddenly diverted to Minsk, the capital of Belarus, where authorities detained Protasevich.

Roman Protasevich addresses the crowd next to a famous Gdansk's Shipyard Gate number 2 on August 31, 2020 during 'Free Poland To Free Belarus' support rally.
Roman Protasevich was detained when his flight was diverted to Belarus. Source: Getty Images

The journalist had his head in his hands and was shaking when he realised the flight was headed for Minsk, Lithuania's Delfi news outlet said, quoting a passenger.

In an unverified report, he remarked: "I'll get the death penalty here." 

Data from the flightradar24.com website showed the plane was diverted just two minutes before it was due to cross into Lithuanian airspace. Radar images show the plane was closer to Vilnius than it was Minsk.

After several hours in Minsk, the plane took off and finally landed in Vilnius where Lithuanian Prime Minister Ingrida Simonyte was waiting to meet the passengers.

EU member state Lithuania, where Protasevich is based, urged the European Union and NATO to respond.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said in a tweet the incident was serious and dangerous, and required an international investigation.

Poland's prime minister called it a "reprehensible act of state terrorism" and said he was pushing for a summit of EU leaders this week to discuss immediate sanctions against Minsk.

"I condemn in the strongest terms the detention of Roman Protasevich by Belarusian authorities, after a Ryanair passenger aircraft was hijacked," Mateusz Morawiecki said on Twitter.

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A spokesperson for European Council Chairman Charles Michel said EU leaders would discuss "consequences and possible sanctions" over the incident. 

Mr Michel in a separate statement called for Protasevich to be released.

Head of the Global Magnitsky Justice campaign Bill Browder said the incident was "truly shocking and unprecedented" and described it as a "true nightmare" on Twitter.

Last year, Protasevich was an editor for Poland-based Nexta Live, which played an important role in broadcasting huge opposition protests against Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko via the Telegram messenger app.

Germany called for an immediate explanation of the incident and Ursula von der Leyen, head of the EU's executive European Commission, said Belarus's action was "utterly unacceptable".

British foreign minister Dominic Raab said there would be serious implications for the "outlandish action".

Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who like Protasevich now operates from Lithuania, called on the UN aviation agency, the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), to kick Belarus out.

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ICAO said it was "strongly concerned" over the incident which might have breached the Chicago Convention, underpinning civil aviation. Global airline industry body IATA also called for a full investigation.

The incident is certain to worsen already dire relations between the West and Belarus, which has been tightly controlled since 1994 by Mr 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.

Ryanair said in a statement 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.

A photo taken on May 23, 2021 shows a Boeing 737-8AS Ryanair passenger plane.
The Boeing 737-8AS Ryanair passenger plane landing in Minsk. Source: Getty Images.

Protasevich a self-proclaimed 'journalist-terrorist'

Protasevich, 26, worked for an online opposition news service NEXTA, a Telegram channel that broadcast footage of mass protests against Mr Lukashenko last year at a time when it was hard for foreign media to do so.

The journalist, 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.

Belarusian news agency BelTA reported Mr 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," Mr Nauseda said.

About 35,000 people have been detained in Belarus since August, human rights groups say. Dozens have received jail terms. Authorities say more than 1000 criminal cases have been launched.

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