European nations have accused Belarus of hijacking a Ryanair flight with a fake bomb alert in what has been described as an “unprecedented act of state terrorism”.
President Alexander Lukashenko is being blasted for forcing the passenger plane to make an emergency landing so authorities could arrest a journalist who has been critical of his authoritarian leadership.
The presidential press service said a bomb threat was received while the Ryanair plane was over the Belarusian territory.
Ryanair said in a statement that the plane’s crew was notified by Belarus of a potential security threat on board and were instructed to divert to the nearest airport, Minsk.
Police then proceeded to detain journalist Roman Protasevich, a prominent opponent of Mr Lukashenko.
The 26-year-old reporter worked for an online opposition news service NEXTA, a Telegram channel that broadcast footage of mass protests against the president in 2020, when it was hard for foreign media to do so.
Protasevich, who now works for a different Telegram channel called Belamova and who describes himself on Twitter – ironically – as the first “journalist-terrorist” in history, is based in Lithuania.
In November 2020, the Belarusian security services (KGB) labelled Pratasevich an extremist and placed him on the list of “individuals involved in terrorist activities”.
He is wanted in Belarus on extremism charges and stands accused of organising mass riots and of inciting social hatred, allegations he denies.
Pratasevich faces charges that could carry a prison sentence of up to 15 years. Supporters told BBC radio on Monday morning they feared he would be tortured.
Officials said no explosives were found on board the Ryanair flight, in what turned out to be a false bomb alert to force the plane to land.
The plane was stopped for hours in Minsk, while passengers had their bags searched in what is being described as an elaborate ruse. The plane took off again for Vilnius, a top EU official said.
‘Utterly unacceptable’: EU countries react
EU member state Lithuania, where Protasevich is based, said it appeared the operation to force the plane to land was pre-planned. It urged the European Union and NATO to respond.
“I call on NATO and EU allies to immediately react to the threat posed to international civil aviation by the Belarus regime. The international community must take immediate steps that this does not repeat,” Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda said.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said in a tweet that the incident was serious and dangerous and required an international investigation.
Poland’s Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said on Twitter: “Hijacking of a civilian plane is an unprecedented act of state terrorism. It cannot go unpunished.”
He said he was pushing for a summit of EU leaders this week to discuss immediate sanctions against Minsk.
Germany called for an immediate explanation, and Ursula von der Leyen, the head of the EU’s executive European Commission, said Belarus’s action was “utterly unacceptable”.
British foreign minister Dominic Raab said there would be serious implications for what he called “outlandish action.”
Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who like Protasevich operates from Lithuania, called on the International Civil Aviation Organisation to kick Belarus out of the organisation.
Lukashenko relationships worsen
The incident is certain to worsen already dire relations between the West and Belarus, which has been tightly controlled since 1994 by Mr Lukashenko.
Opponents accuse him of rigging a presidential election in his own favour last year and of then cracking down violently on the opposition.
He denies electoral fraud.
The Belarusian department for organised crime control reported that Mr Protasevich had been detained before deleting the statement from its Telegram channel.
Around 35,000 people have been detained in Belarus since August, human rights groups say. Dozens have received jail terms.
Authorities say that more than 1000 criminal cases have been launched.