Britain last night strongly condemned the dictator of Belarus after he scrambled a fighter jet to force a Ryanair flight travelling from Greece to Lithuania to land in Minsk so he could arrest a dissident journalist who is now facing the death penalty following an ‘outlandish’ bomb scare.
Ryanair flight FR4978, carrying 171 passengers, had been flying from Athens to Vilnius yesterday when its crew was warned by Belarusian air traffic control that there had been a report of a bomb on board.
The pilot of the Soviet-era MiG-29 ordered to intercept the airliner signalled that it should make an emergency landing in Minsk Airport. When it did, state security officers arrested Roman Protasevich, a vocal critic of ‘Putin puppet’ Alexander Lukashenko who founded Poland-based opposition news outlet Nexta.
Protasevich, 26, is wanted in Belarus on charges of extremism and of organising mass riots and inciting social hatred after he broadcast footage of the huge anti-regime protests via the Telegram messenger app last year – allegations which he denies. If convicted, the blogger could be sentenced to death.
Britain, the US, Ireland, Germany, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Poland and the Czech Republic all lined up last night to denounce the ‘state-sponsored terror act’, and called for the toughening of existing sanctions against the Lukashenko regime as well as the release of Protasevich.
Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab tweeted: ‘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.’
Tom Tugendhat, Tory chairman of the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, joined foreign counterparts in condemning the Belarus action as ‘an act of piracy’ and calling for the suspension of all overflights.
‘This act of state terror and kidnapping is a threat to all those who travel in Europe and beyond. It cannot be allowed to stand,’ they thundered in a joint statement released last night.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken called the incident ‘shocking’ and accused Lukashenko’s regime of endangering the lives of those aboard the aircraft, some of them Americans. He also called for the release of Pratasevich and for the Council of the International Civil Aviation Organization to review the incident.
US Ambassador Julie Fisher called the hijacking ‘dangerous and abhorrent’, and added that Belarus had ‘showed again its contempt for international community and its citizens’.
Brussels is set to discuss strengthening sanctions against Belarus, imposed over the crackdown on opposition protesters, at a pre-planned summit on Monday. EU chief Ursula von der Leyen 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.’
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said that ‘such an act cannot be left without definite consequences from the side of the European Union’ and called for Pratasevich to be released.
Polish premier Mateusz Morawiecki denounced Belarus’s actions as ‘an act of state terrorism’, while French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian called for a ‘strong and united response’ from the EU. Lithuania and Latvia have called for international flights not to use Belarusian airspace.
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 yesterday after being escorted by a MiG-29 fighter jet amid reports of a bomb on board
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
Journalists and Belarusian activists wait to see passengers of the Ryanair plane carrying opposition figure Raman Pratasevich at the International Airport outside Vilnius, Lithuania
Ryanair flight FR4978 had been flying from Athens in Greece to Vilnius in Lithuania when it was escorted by a Soviet-era MiG-29 fighter jet to Belarus amid fake reports of an IED on board. It was forced to make an emergency landing at Minsk Airport, where authorities arrested dissident journalist Roman Protasevich
Was Ryanair hijacking a KGB sting? Ally of arrested blogger claims Russian spies ‘initiated fight with cabin crew by insisting there was a bomb on board’
A member of the Nexta team, Tadeusz Giczan, said on Twitter that representatives of the Belarusian security agency had been on the flight with Protasevich.
‘Then when the plane had entered Belarus airspace, the KGB officers initiated a fight with the Ryanair crew insisting there’s an IED onboard,’ he said.
A spokeswoman for state company Lithuanian Airports, Lina Beisine, told AFP that Minsk airport had said the flight was redirected ‘due to a conflict between a member of the crew and the passengers’.
Ryanair said the flight’s crew had been notified by Belarus air traffic control of ‘a potential security threat on board’ and were instructed to divert to Minsk, the ‘nearest’ airport.
The EU and the United States have sanctioned Lukashenko and dozens of officials and businessmen tied to his regime with asset freezes and visa bans.
The opposition protests in Belarus, which left at least four people dead, have now subsided, but journalists and activists continue to receive prison sentences in the aftermath.
Greek premier Kyriakos Mitsotakis denounced the Belarusian intervention of the Ryanair flight. 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.’
NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg also said he was closely monitoring the situation, tweeting: ‘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.’
Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda called the incident a ‘state-sponsored terror act.’ He said that the European Council would discuss the case Monday and that he would propose banning Belarusian planes from European Union airports and ‘serious sanctions’ against Lukashenko’s government.
He also described Belarus’s actions as ‘abhorrent’ and prosecutors said they had opened a criminal investigation for the hijacking of a plane.
‘Belarusian airspace is completely unsafe for any commercial flight, and it should be deemed this not only by the EU but by the international community. Because now, this instrument could be used for any plane crossing Belarusian airspace,’ said Lithuania’s foreign minister, Gabrielius Landsbergis.
Meanwhile, the International Civil Aviation Organization – the UN’s civil aviation agency – said the forced landing ‘could be in contravention of the Chicago Convention’, which protects nations’ airspace sovereignty.
Lithuanian Prime Minister Ingrida Simonyte came to Vilnius Airport for the plane’s arrival, as did dozens of Belarusian opposition supporters.
Some were draped in the flags used by the opposition, while others held up signs supporting him, including one that read ‘Ryanair, Where is Roman?!’.
‘We have to show our solidarity in order to avoid being broken one by one,’ said one of the opposition supporters, 36-year-old Aleksandr Glachkov. He called the detention of Protasevich a ‘crime’.
Simon Coveney, foreign minister of Ireland, where Ryanair is based, said on Twitter: ‘EU inaction or indecision will be taken as weakness by Belarus.’
Flight tracker sites indicated the plane was about six miles from the Lithuanian border when it was diverted. However, there were conflicting accounts of the move.
The press service of Lukashenko said the president himself ordered that a MiG-29 fighter jet accompany the airliner after he was informed of the bomb threat. Deputy air force commander Andrei Gurtsevich said the plane’s crew made the decision to land in Minsk.
But Ryanair said in a statement that Belarusian air traffic control instructed the plane to divert to the capital.
The Belarus presidential press service said the bomb threat was received while the plane was over Belarusian territory. Officials later said no explosives were found on board.
Passengers were taken off the plane in Minsk. After the plane arrived in Vilnius, Defense Minister Arvydas Anusauskas said Pratasevich’s girlfriend and four other people did not reboard.
‘We will find out who are the other four that did not travel with the rest. Lithuania has launched an investigation to find out what really happened on that plane,’ he said on Facebook.
Ben Hodges, former commander of U.S. Army forces in Europe, said the air defenses of Belarus were closely integrated with those of Russia. ‘If you had anything happening in the Belarus airspace, it would be impossible for the Kremlin – or at least Russian military forces – not to know about it,’ he said.
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
Mantas, a Lithuanian passenger of Ryanair flight FR4978, speaks to the media after arriving at Vilnius Airport, Lithuania
A woman covered with an old Belarusian national flag holds a phone with a sticker in colors of an old Belarusian national flag as she waits to see passengers of the Ryanair plane carrying opposition figure Raman Pratasevich
Lithuanian Prime Minister Ingrida Simonyte came to Vilnius Airport for the plane’s arrival on Sunday, as did dozens of Belarusian opposition supporters
‘Dangerous and abhorrent’: US Secretary of State condemns Belarus President Lukashenko for faking a bomb threat and sending fighter jets to arrest a journalist
United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken has condemned Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko after Belarusian authorities hijacked a Ryanair flight.
‘We strongly condemn the Lukashenka regime’s brazen and shocking act to divert a commercial flight and arrest a journalist,’ Blinken said in a statement Sunday evening.
Blinken called for the immediate release of Roman Protasevich, 26, an opponent of President Lukashenko was taken off the plane and arrested.
‘We demand an international investigation and are coordinating with our partners on next steps. The United States stands with the people of Belarus.’
Julie Fisher, the US Ambassador to Belarus, earlier voiced her anger at the provocation.
‘Lukashenko and his regime today showed again its contempt for international community and its citizens. Faking a bomb threat and sending MiG-29s to force @RyanAir to Minsk in order to arrest a @Nexta journalist on politically motivated charges is dangerous and abhorrent.’
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.
After finally landing in Vilnius several hours after the scheduled time of arrival, some passengers described seeing the blogger looking nervous as the flight was diverted to Belarus.
‘He just turned to people and said he was facing the death penalty,’ Monika Simkiene, a 40-year-old Lithuanian, told AFP.
Edvinas Dimsa, 37, said: ‘He was not screaming, but it was clear that he was very much afraid. It looked like if the window had been open, he would have jumped out of it.’
Other passengers said Protasevich reacted immediately to the news that the plane was diverting to Minsk without explanation. They described seeing him standing up from his seat, reaching into the overhead locker, pulling a laptop computer from his hand luggage and passing it to a female companion – his girlfriend – along with his mobile phone.
‘When it was announced they were going to land in Minsk, Roman stood up, opened the luggage compartment, took luggage and was trying to split things,’ said the Lithuanian passenger, who gave his name only as Mantas.
‘I think he made a mistake. There were plenty of people so he could give the things to me or other passengers and not the girlfriend, who was also I think arrested.’
Mantas was speaking to Reuters after a day-long ordeal that began in Athens and finally ended late in the evening in the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius, after a stopover of more than seven hours in Minsk.
Another exhausted passenger, speaking to reporters without giving her name, said Protasevich looked ‘super scared’.
‘I looked directly into his eyes and he was very sad,’ she said.
Protasevich, 26 was immediately separated on arrival in Minsk and checks of luggage using sniffer dogs turned up nothing.
‘We saw that Roman was stopped due to some things in the luggage,’ Mantas said, adding that the other passengers also had their luggage checked and were taken by bus to the terminal where they spent several hours waiting to reboard the plane.
‘We saw from the window that Roman is standing alone, and one policeman with dog was trying to find something (in his luggage).’
Another passenger, who also did not give his name, told Lithuanian media that Protasevich had identified himself to Belarusian security officials on arrival. ‘I saw how his passport was taken away. He took off his mask and said: “I’m so-and-so and I’m the reason why all this is going on”.’
The other passengers looked weary on arrival in Vilnius, with Mantas saying they had spent hours in queues for luggage and passport checks in Minsk before being allowed into a lounge to await takeoff.
Passengers on the Ryanair flight filmed Belarusian officials walking towards the plane before Protasevich was arrested (left) while sniffer dogs searched bags (right)
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.
‘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.
‘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.’
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.
The Ryanair flight is parked at Minsk International Airport on Sunday after it was stopped by authorities
ROMAN PROTASEVICH: OPPOSITION BLOGGER FORCED INTO EXILE
Protasevich, 26, has long been a thorn in the side of Belarus’s hardline dictator Alexander Lukashenko.
He worked as an editor at the Poland-based Nexta Live channel, which is based on the Telegram messenger app and has over 1 million subscribers. The channel, which is openly hostile to Lukashenko, played an important role in broadcasting huge opposition protests against the President last year.
Nexta also helped coordinate those same protests, which were sparked by anger over what the opposition said was a rigged presidential election. The channel’s footage, which showed how harshly police cracked down on demonstrators, was used widely by international media at a time when the Belarusian authorities were reluctant to allow foreign media in.
In November Protasevich published a copy of an official Belarusian list of terrorists on which his name figured. The listing said he was accused of organising mass riots while working at Nexta. He also stands accused of disrupting social order and of inciting social hatred. He regards the allegations, which could see him jailed for years, as unjustified political repression.
Protasevich fled Belarus for Poland in 2019 due to pressure from the authorities, according to Media Solidarity, a group that supports Belarusian journalists. He moved his parents to Poland too after they were put under surveillance. He later relocated to Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, where opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya is also based.
Protasevich is currently editor-in-chief of a Belarusian political outlet hosted on the Telegram messaging app called ‘Belarus of the Brain’ which has around a quarter of a million subscribers.
He was flying back to Vilnius from Greece where he had spent time taking photographs of a visit there by Tsikhanouskaya. He had posted the pictures to social media before flying back.
– By REUTERS
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.
British Conservative MP Damian Collins condemned the ‘hijacking’ in a statement. 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 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.
He is wanted in Belarus on extremism charges and stands accused of organising mass riots and of inciting social hatred, allegations he denies.
Protasevich and Nexta founder Stepan Putilo, 22, were added to Belarus’s list of ‘individuals involved in terrorist activity’ last year.
The two bloggers – both now based in Poland – were accused of causing mass unrest, an offence punishable by up to 15 years in jail.
Belarus also labelled the Nexta Telegram channels and its logo ‘extremist’ and ordered them blocked.
With close to two million subscribers on Telegram, Nexta Live and its sister channel Nexta are prominent opposition channels and helped mobilise protesters.
Police officers detained Roman Protasevich after he was attempting to cover a rally in Minsk, Belarus on 26 March 2017
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.
The Ryanair plane, which was carrying blogger Roman Protasevich and was diverted to Belarus, lands at Vilnius Airport in Vilnius, Lithuania on Sunday
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.