Lukashenko Crackdown Adds Airline Hijacking To List of Abuses
This is very ungood on multiple levels. It certainly appears that a high-profile critic of Belarus dictator Lukashenko was arrested off a flight that was diverted by a bogus bomb threat.
The Nexta media network said its ex-editor Roman Protasevich was detained.
Belarus state media said the plane was diverted to Minsk because of a bomb scare but no explosives were found.
European nations have reacted with outrage, accusing Belarus of “state terrorism” and demanding punishment.
Political figures across Europe have already called for the EU and Nato to intervene.
UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab warned the “outlandish action” would have “serious implications”.
Belarus opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who was beaten by Alexander Lukashenko in presidential polls last year widely denounced as rigged, was among those demanding Mr Protasevich’s release.
Since August’s election, 66-year-old Mr Lukashenko, who has ruled the country since 1994, has cracked down on dissenting voices. Many opposition figures have been arrested or, like Ms Tikhanovskaya, fled into exile.
The plane has now left Minsk, Belarus’s capital, for Lithuania, after spending several hours on the ground.
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Flight FR4978 was en route from Athens to the Lithuanian capital Vilnius on Sunday when it turned east to Minsk shortly before it reached the Lithuanian border. Greece and Lithuania put the number of passengers on board at 171.
In a statement, Ryanair said that the crew were “notified by Belarus (Air Traffic Control) of a potential security threat on board and were instructed to divert to the nearest airport, Minsk”.
The flight path, visible on the Flightradar24 website, suggests the plane was actually nearer to Vilnius than Minsk when it turned.
Ryanair said checks in Minsk found “nothing untoward” and the aircraft was cleared to depart after about five hours on the ground.
“Ryanair has notified the relevant national and European safety and security agencies and we apologise sincerely to all affected passengers for this regrettable delay which was outside Ryanair’s control,” it added.
The Ryanair statement made no mention of Mr Protasevich.
Nexta was the first to break the news of his arrest.
Nexta editor-in-chief, Tadeusz Giczan, tweeted a quote from a passenger on the plane who said that Mr Protasevich had told them who he was once they were on the ground at Minsk, with him adding “they’ll execute me here”.
Belta, the state-owned news agency in Belarus, said Mr Lukashenko had personally given the order for the plane to land in Minsk following the bomb alert, and that a MiG-29 fighter jet had been despatched to accompany the Ryanair plane.