Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko forced a Ryanair flight bound for Lithuania to land in Minsk on Sunday in order to arrest a top dissident, the opposition said, sparking a furious response from Brussels and European capitals.
Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, Belarus’ exiled opposition leader, said that online activist Roman Protasevich, resident in Lithuania, had been detained in the Belarusian capital, and demanded an immediate international response.
“From now — no one flying over Belarus — can be secure,” she wrote on Twitter, after Ryanair flight FR4978 from Athens to Vilnius was unexpectedly diverted to Minsk.
European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen tweeted that the forced landing was “utterly unacceptable” and called on Belarus to let all passengers travel safely to Vilnius. “Any violation of international air transport rules must bear consequences,” she wrote.
Lithuanian president Gitanas Nauseda called for Protasevich’s swift release and said he would raise the matter at an EU summit on Monday. “I call on Nato and EU allies to immediately react to the threat posed to international civil aviation by the Belarus regime,” Nauseda said in a statement on his website.
Polish prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki tweeted he would call for “immediate sanctions” against Belarus. “Hijacking of a civilian plane is an unprecedented act of state terrorism. It cannot go unpunished,” Morawiecki wrote.
Protasevich, 26, is the former editor of Nexta, the Warsaw-based media group that played a prominent role in both covering and directing the huge protests against Lukashenko last year.
Lukashenko personally gave an “irrevocable command to turn the plane around and land it,” before it left Belarusian airspace, according to a post on a semi-official presidential channel on messaging app Telegram.
Belarusian security forces did not immediately confirm whether Protasevich had been arrested.
Last November, Belarus placed Protasevich on a terrorist watch list and charged him with three protest-related crimes, the most serious carries a sentence of up to 15 years in prison.
The Lithuanian foreign ministry said in a statement that Protasevich had been “detained by the Minsk regime”. Ryanair did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
According to messages sent by Protasevich to his colleagues, he noticed he was being followed by a man he suspected was a Belarusian KGB agent while at the Athens departure lounge. The man stood behind him in the boarding queue and tried to take a photo of his documents, the activist wrote in text messages to his colleagues. Protasevich said the man then asked him a “stupid question” in Russian and then left.
After the plane entered Belarusian airspace, a “conflict” broke out between a passenger and a crew member, a Lithuanian airport official told local site Delfi. The plane turned around near the Lithuanian border and landed in Minsk, according to flight tracking data.
Andrei Gurtsevich, a senior air force commander, said Belarus decided to scramble a MiG-29 fighter jet to accompany the plane after learning of a bomb threat,” according to Belta. Airport officials later said the bomb threat was “false”.
Nexta has provoked Lukashenko’s ire for its coverage of last year’s protests and the brutal crackdown that Lukashenko’s regime unleashed in response. Its channel on messaging app Telegram has more than 1.2m subscribers, an enormous audience in a country of just 9.5m.
Hundreds of thousands of Belarusians took to the streets in an unprecedented show of discontent after the former collective farm boss, who has ruled Belarus with an iron fist for 27 years, claimed victory over Tsikhanouskaya in a deeply flawed presidential election last year.
Most of the opposition’s main figures are either in exile like Tsikhanouskaya, who is based in Lithuania, or in prison.
Additional reporting by Richard Milne in Oslo.