White Russia forces down flight passing through its airspace to arrest journalist

Belarusian authorities in Lukashenko ordered a Ryanair flight from Athens, Greece, scheduled for Vilnius, Lithuania, to change course and land in its capital, Minsk, on May 23. The official Belarusian News Agency (BELTA) said the authorities made the move in response to a bomb threat on the plane, but Lukashenko’s opponents said Roman Protasevich, an independent journalist and blogger who was on the flight, was arrested after the plane landed. Following the incident, Lithuanian President Gitanas Nausėda demanded that the Belarusian authorities release him immediately and called on NATO and EU allies to respond immediately.

Belarusian news agency said that Ryanair flight Ryanair FR 4978 was diverted to Minsk International Airport for an emergency landing “due to a bomb scare”. Lukashenko himself reportedly ordered a MiG-29 fighter jet to escort the flight to an emergency landing. An airport spokesman told Belarusian news agency that although authorities did not find any explosive devices on the plane, it was not clear when the plane would be allowed to take off again. The source described the latest media reports from Lukashenko’s administration as saying the plane made an emergency landing because of a clash between a crew member and a passenger. The official story before that was a “bomb scare”. Protasevich, who is known to manage the popular opposition social media Telegram channel NEXTA from outside Belarus, was on the flight to Vilnius, Lithuania, when the incident occurred.

Protasevich, 26, and another creator of the NEXTA channel were listed by Lukashenko authorities last November as individuals involved in terrorist activities. White Russian authorities announced that he and another administrator of the NEXTA channel were being investigated for allegedly “organizing mass disorder, disturbing public order and inciting social hatred. The White Russian opposition says Protasevich may face the death penalty as a result. Telegraph channel NEXTA covered and exposed the protests and security forces’ brutality during last year’s anti-government protests in Belarus. Last October, a Minsk court designated the NEXTA channel and its logo as extremist, censoring and restricting the distribution of information from the platform on the Internet in Belarus.

Protasevich said on his Telegraph channel earlier Sunday that he felt he was under surveillance before traveling to Lithuania. He wrote that while standing in line at a border checkpoint, a man next to him tried to take pictures of his documents and then left. Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, a Belarusian opposition leader forced into exile in Lithuania, tweeted the same day that “the regime forced a Ryanair plane to land in Minsk to arrest journalist and activist Roman Protasevich.” She added that she demanded his immediate release and called on the International Civil Aviation Organization and the international community to take action on it, including sanctions.

Also on the breaking news, Lithuanian President Nauceda said on Facebook, “Today, a passenger plane bound for Vilnius was forcibly grounded by Belarusian authorities in Minsk. According to preliminary reports, Belarusian regime forces detained Roman Protasevich, a Belarusian opposition figure who was granted asylum status in Lithuania.” He said, “I demand that the Belarusian regime immediately release the detainee and allow him to continue his journey to Vilnius. I call on NATO and EU allies to respond immediately to the threat posed by the Belarusian regime to international civil aviation. The international community must act urgently to ensure that similar incidents do not happen again. I will speak about this at the European Council in Brussels starting tomorrow.”

Lithuanian Prime Minister Ingrida Šimonytė tweeted, “The passengers and crew of the Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius were put in danger by a forced landing in Minsk. We demand that the plane and passengers be allowed to fly to Vilnius immediately!” Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis also stated, “We are working with international partners to ensure the safe return of all passengers to Vilnius.” He said that there were 171 passengers on board the flight. According to the information available to the Lithuanian government about 149 passengers: 1 Austrian citizen, 1 Belgian citizen, 1 Bulgarian citizen, 1 Cypriot citizen, 3 German citizens, 1 Spanish citizen, 9 French citizens, 1 Georgian citizen, 11 Greek citizens, 94 Lithuanian citizens, 2 citizens of Latvia, 4 citizens of Poland, 5 citizens of Romania, 4 citizens of Belarus, 2 citizens of Syria, 1 citizen of Nigeria, etc. The Lithuanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs has summoned the Chargé d’affaires of the Belarusian Embassy in Lithuania and asked to be placed.

Former European Council President Donald Tusk said via Twitter, “Lukashenka poses a threat not only to his own citizens but also to international security. His acts of state terrorism demand an immediate and decisive response from all European governments and institutions.” In response, German Foreign Ministry State Secretary Miguel Berger said, “We need an immediate explanation from the Belarusian government regarding the diversion of a Ryanair flight within the EU to Minsk and the alleged detention of a journalist.”