Belarusian dissident arrested after Ryanair plane forced to divert

Opposition blogger and activist Roman Protasevich arrives for a court hearing in Minsk

The Ryanair plane with registration number SP-RSM, carrying opposition figure Raman Pratasevich which was traveling from Athens to Vilnius and was diverted to Minsk after a bomb threat, lands at the International Airport outside Vilnius, Lithuania, Sunday, May 23, 2021.

Another passenger, Mantas, who declined to give his surname, also said that Protasevich was "nervous at first, but later when he understood he can't change anything, he calmed down and accepted it".

State media in Belarus said President Alexander Lukashenko had personally given the order for the move following the bomb alert, which turned out to be false. The Belarusian president has labelled NEXTA a terrorist organisation and has been acused of provoking riots after his channels became one of the main conduits for organising last year's anti-Lukashenko protests over election fraud. Passengers and their baggage were taken from the plane and checked.

Christophe Deloire, the head of Reporters Without Borders, called the moves against "a new attempt to silence the most well-known independent media in Belarus", and called on the United Nations to act to ensure freedom of information.

The charges of inciting public disorder and social hatred carry a punishment of more than 12 years in prison.

The ICAO later said it "is strongly concerned by the apparent forced landing".

The Boeing 737 aircraft was on a scheduled commercial flight from Athens, Greece to Vilnius, Lithuania and was overflying Belarusian territory when it was forced to divert by a MiG-29 escort after informing it of a bomb threat.

Belarusian authorities scrambled a fighter jet to force the plane to land on Sunday (local time) and then detained passenger Roman Protasevich, drawing criticism from across Europe and the rest of the world with fears he could potentially face the death penalty.

'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.

Passengers on the flight FR4978 described the anxious minutes for Protasevich after he realised that the plane was being diverted to Minsk.

The president of the European Council Charles Michel, who will host a summit of the 27 EU national leaders on Monday, also spoke out. "The global community must take immediate steps that this does not repeat", Mr Nauseda said. "Consequences and possible sanctions will be discussed at this occasion".

The European Union called for Protasevich's immediate release, with the head of the EU's executive European Commission and the Polish prime minister describing the incident as a hijacking.

Authorities in Belarus scrambled a fighter jet and flagged what turned out to be a false bomb alert to force a Ryanair plane to land, drawing worldwide criticism.

US Ambassador to Greece Geoffrey Pyatt said that US authorities are cooperating with Greece to fully investigate the incident.

"I demand to free Roman Protasevich urgently", tweeted Nauseda. "This is a reprehensible act of state terrorism", he said.

UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said: "The UK is alarmed by reports of the arrest of NEXTA journalist Roman Protasevich and circumstances that led to his flight being forced to land in Minsk".

The United States "strongly condemns the forced diversion of a flight between two European Union member states and the subsequent removal and arrest of journalist Raman Pratasevich in Minsk. We demand his immediate release", Blinken said in a statement.

The ministry said, "This act which placed passengers' lives in danger is unacceptable".



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