Belarus Dictator Forces Athens to Vilnius Flight to Land in Minsk

Raman Pratasevich who had fled Belarus for Poland faces charges that could carry a prison sentence of up to 15 years.
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After hours grounded in Belarus, the flight was able to continue on its journey, landing in Vilnius at 1825 GMT, the airport's online arrivals board said.

"We hold the government of Belarus responsible for the security of all passengers and the aircraft", European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell tweeted.

A Lithuanian official said they had received no information about a potential explosive and said they believed the plane had to land because of a conflict between a passenger and a member of the crew.

"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.

Belta reported, citing airport official Maksim Kiyakov.

Pratasevich is a co-founder of the Telegram messaging app's Nexta channel, which Belarus a year ago declared as extremist after it was used to help organise major protests against Lukashenko.

Brussels decided in February to extend until 28 February 2022 the sanctions imposed on President Alexander Lukashenko and regime insiders involved in the crackdown on protests against Belarus' 2020 presidential election.

Initial reports claimed a bomb threat to be the reason for the diversion, however a short time later it was confirmed by several sources that Belarus had apparently forced the plane to land in Minsk.

Ursula von der Leyen, the head of the European Commission, said Belarus's action was "utterly unacceptable", while British foreign minister Dominic Raab said there would be serious implications for what he called "outlandish action".

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.

She warned: "Any violation of worldwide air transport rules must bear consequences".

He is a known supporter of opposition figure Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya. Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki called the incident a "hijacking" and called for immediate sanctions on Belarus.

The plane had been travelling from Athens in Greece to Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania. It made no mention of Protasevich in the statement.

Belarus' authorities placed Protasevich on a terrorism watchlist last year and have opened criminal cases against him on charges of organizing mass riots and inciting hatred, offenses that carry sentences of up to 12 to 15 years in prison.

Belarus had also labelled the Nexta Telegram channels and its logo "extremist" and ordered them blocked.

"It is absolutely obvious that this is an operation by the special services to hijack an aircraft in order to detain activist and blogger Raman Pratasevich", she said in a statement.

The opposition believes that Tikhanovskaya, who fled to neighbouring Lithuania after the election, was the true victor of last year's presidential vote.

Roman Protasevich, the Vilnius-based arrested journalist, now faces a death penalty.

Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis said there were 171 passengers aboard the flight, majority Lithuanian nationals.

Although protests died down during the winter, Belarus has continued to take actions against the opposition and independent news media.



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