Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko ordered a Ryanair flight carrying a key opposition blogger and headed for Lithuania to land in the Belarusian capital Minsk on Sunday and detained him on arrival, officials and rights activists said.
Authorities in Belarus scrambled a fighter jet and flagged what turned out to be a false bomb alert to force the plane to land and then detained opposition-minded journalist Roman Protasevich, drawing criticism from across Europe.
In the dramatic incident, a Soviet-era MiG-29 fighter jet escorted the passenger plane flying from Athens to Lithuania. Law enforcement then detained Protasevich, who had been on a wanted list after last year’s mass street protests following an election in which Lukashenko had claimed a landslide victory.
The aircraft had almost reached Lithuania when it changed direction and was escorted to Minsk amid reports that it had explosives on board, according to an online flight tracker and BelTA. No explosives were found, BelTA said.
The Belarus department for organized crime control also reported that Protasevich had been detained, but then deleted the statement from its Telegram channel.
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.
Lukashenko personally ordered the warplane to escort the Ryanair Boeing to Minsk, state news agency BelTA reported.
In power since 1994, Lukashenko launched a violent crackdown on the 2020 street protests. Around 35,000 people have been detained since August, human rights groups say. Dozens have received jail terms. Authorities say that more than 1,000 criminal cases have been opened.
A Lithuanian airport authority spokeswoman told Reuters the plane, scheduled to land in Vilnius at 1100 GMT, was diverted to Minsk due to a conflict between the crew and a passenger.
The plane was expected to land in Vilnius from Minsk at 1500 GMT, she said.
Protasevich is one of the founders of the opposition news service NEXTA, a Telegram channel that has become one of the main sources of news about demonstrations in Belarus. It is hostile to Lukashenko and helps to coordinate protests.
Belarusian opposition politician Svetlana Tikhanouskaya, Lukashenko’s main rival at the last election, said Belarus authorities “placed at risk safety of passengers on board and all of the civil aviation for the sake of punishment of the man who was an editor of Belarus’s largest independent Telegram channel.”
Lithuania on Sunday called for European Union countries to jointly recommend that planes avoid Belarusian airspace after the flight was forced to land.
The proposal for a joint declaration will be put forward at a meeting of European leaders on Monday and will include a call to recognize the incident as a violation of International Civil Aviation Organization rules, the foreign ministry said.
Lithuania has also asked its EU allies to summon Belarusian ambassadors and to protest against the use of military aircraft to divert planes.
“This is a brutal affront against all (the) EU,” Lithuania’s foreign minister Gabrielius Landsbergis said in a statement.
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.
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 minister Dominic Raab said there would be serious implications for what he called “outlandish action.” Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who like Protasevich operates from Lithuania, called on the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) to kick Belarus out of the organisation.
The incident is certain to worsen already dire relations between the West and Belarus.