Belarus intercepts Irish flight to seize opposition, sparking international outrage

Belarus caused a strong international reaction Sunday when it forced down an international flight that was flying over its airspace and boarded the plane to make an arrest.

On Sunday, May 23, an Irish Rayanair flight en route from Greece to Lithuania was stopped by Belarusian authorities for several hours in the country’s capital, Minsk. During that time, Belarus seized from the plane Belarusian opposition journalist Roman Protasevich, a former editor of the Belarusian opposition media Nexta, who has been critical of President Lukashenko.

Belarusian media said a Soviet-era MiG-29 fighter jet “escorted” the airliner to the Belarusian capital Minsk because of a bomb alert and fears of an explosive threat, but no explosives were found on board.

Lithuanian airports say they have received no reports of bomb threats on board.

Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta quoted a Ryanair representative as saying that it was the Belarusian aviation command center that informed the crew of the bomb threat and requested a change of course.

Belarus’ actions sparked a huge backlash from the West.

According to BBC foreign affairs correspondent James Landale, “We don’t know the full details of this story yet, but it could have huge repercussions.”

In a tweet, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg urged an “international investigation” into the “serious and dangerous” incident.

Simon Coveney, foreign minister of Ireland, where Ryanair is based, tweeted, “The EU’s failure to take action will be seen by Belarus as a sign of incompetence and indecisiveness.”

Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis said he discussed the Ryanair plane diversion with U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Philip Reeker and urged a strong Western response.

Secretary of State Blinken noted that the Belarusian government’s forced diversion of a civilian aircraft in order to arrest a journalist is appalling; he also called for Protacevich’s immediate release. In a tweet Sunday, Blinken said, “We are calling for an international investigation and are coordinating next steps with our partners …… U.S. stands with the people of Belarus.”

U.S. Senate Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Bob Menendez (D-N.Y.), along with several other European parliamentary foreign affairs chiefs, issued a statement condemning the “piracy” and calling for a ban on flights over Belarus.

British Foreign Secretary Raab warned that this “unusual move” would have “serious implications.

Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya and others have called for Protacevich’s immediate release. Tikhanovskaya lost to President Lukashenko in last year’s general election in Belarus, which was widely considered fraudulent.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said that this illegal move “will face consequences”.

European countries have also threatened to impose a new round of sanctions on Belarus.

Belarus was accused of election fraud by the opposition after last August’s elections. Subsequently, the United States, as well as the European Union, Britain and Canada, have imposed asset freezes and travel bans on nearly 90 Belarusian officials, including Lukashenko.

Wikipedia says the Nexta cable channel, of which Platasevich was editor, became one of the main sources for outside news of people protesting election fraud after the government tried to cut off the Internet during the August 2020 presidential election in Belarus. It had gained 800,000 new subscribers in a single week.

On Nov. 5, 2020, Platasevich was accused by the Belarusian government of organizing mass riots.

The 26-year-old Platasevich was a dissident activist as a teenager. He began participating in various protests in the early 2010s, actively working against President Lukashenko. He studied journalism at Belarusian State University and worked for the U.S. federal government’s Radio Free Europe.

The New York Times said Platasevich, whose name is on a list of terrorists by Belarusian security agency KGB, “could face the death penalty if he is charged and convicted of terrorism, and more than 12 years in prison for inciting public disorder and social hatred.”

Lukashenko, 66, has been in control of the Belarusian regime for 27 years, since 1994. He has continued to suppress dissenting voices after last August’s election. Many opposition figures have been arrested and jailed, and some, like Protasevich, have fled abroad.