Belarus accused of ‘hijacking’ Ryanair flight diverted to arrest blogger

Belarus has been accused of hijacking a European jetliner and engaging in an act of state terrorism when it forced a Ryanair flight to perform an emergency landing in Minsk after a bomb threat and arrested an opposition blogger critical of authoritarian president Alexander Lukashenko.

Roman Protasevich, a former editor of the influential Telegram channels Nexta and Nexta Live, was detained by police after his flight was diverted to Minsk national airport. Minsk confirmed that Lukashenko ordered his military to scramble a Mig-29 fighter to escort the plane.

The Polish prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, said the plane had been “hijacked” and accused Lukashenko of a “reprehensible act of state terrorism”. He said he would demand new sanctions against Belarus at a European Council meeting scheduled for Monday.

Tom Tugendhat, the chair of the UK foreign affairs select committee, said: “If aircraft can be forced to the ground … in order to punish the political opponents of tyrants, then journalists here in the UK, politicians anywhere in Europe will find it harder to speak out.”

He joined counterparts from the US, Ireland, Germany, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Poland and the Czech Republic in condemning the action as “an act of piracy” and calling for the suspension of all overflights. “This act of state terror and kidnapping is a threat to all those who travel in Europe and beyond. It cannot be allowed to stand,” they said in a joint statement.

“We are coordinating with our allies,” said Dominic Raab, the UK foreign secretary. “This outlandish action by Lukashenko will have serious implications.”

Charles Michel, president of the European Council, said EU leaders would decide on the repercussions for Belarus at Monday’s meeting.

He said: “I call on Belarus authorities to immediately release the detained passenger and to fully guarantee his rights. EU leaders will discuss this unprecedented incident tomorrow during the European Council. The incident will not remain without consequences.”

Forcing the emergency landing of a European jetliner would be an extraordinary act even for Lukashenko’s government, which has launched a broad crackdown on opposition leaders and independent media. Opponents of the regime have been arrested, including some who have fled abroad to avoid reprisals, including a former spokesman for Lukashenko who vanished last month during a trip to Moscow and then reappeared in custody in Minsk.

Protasevich has been accused by Belarus of terrorism and provoking riots after the Nexta channels became one of the main conduits for organising last year’s anti-Lukashenko protests over elections fraud. Protasevich had been living in exile and Poland had previously rejected an extradition request sent by Minsk.

Protasevich was flying on an intra-EU flight from Athens to Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, when the plane was diverted to Minsk. According to online flight data, the plane was over Belarusian airspace when it diverted course but was closer to Vilnius than Minsk.

“I’m facing the death penalty here,” a trembling Protasevich reportedly told a fellow passenger from the plane before he was led away by Belarusian police. The mass unrest charges against him carry a sentence of up to 15 years. His current whereabouts are unknown.

The grounding of a plane flying from Greece to Lithuania on an Ireland-based carrier with a Poland-based political exile on board provoked broad from across the EU bloc and the threat to European transportation routes also triggered a strong reaction from EU officials.

“Unprecedented event!” wrote Gitanas Nausėda, the president of Lithuania. “The regime is behind the abhorrent action. I demand to free Roman Protasevich urgently!”

The German foreign ministry state secretary, Miguel Berger, demanded “an immediate explanation by the government of Belarus on the diversion of a Ryanair flight within the EU to Minsk and the alleged detention of a journalist” and the European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, said “any violation of international air transport rules must bear consequences”.

The EU has already sanctioned nearly 60 Belarusian officials, including Lukashenko and his son Victor, over accusations of elections fraud and then a heavy-handed crackdown on protesters that included widespread reports of brutal torture in Belarusian jails. Minsk has increasingly turned to Moscow for support, isolating it from the west but also limiting the effect of possible sanctions from Brussels or Washington.

Protasevich had been covering a visit to Athens by Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, a former presidential candidate who has declared herself the country’s leader-in-exile due to widespread fraud during last year’s elections. She called on the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) to investigate Belarus.

“The regime forced the landing @Ryanair plane in Minsk to arrest journalist and activist Raman Pratasevich. He faces the death penalty in Belarus. We demand immediate release of Raman, @ICAO investigation, and sanctions against Belarus,” she wrote. “Lukashenko’s regime endangered the lives of passengers onboard the plane. From now – no one flying over Belarus – can be secure. International reaction needed!”

In a statement sent to the Guardian, Ryanair said it had been ordered to divert the flight to Minsk by Belarusian air-traffic controllers.

“The crew on a Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius today (23 May) were notified by Belarus ATC of a potential security threat on board and were instructed to divert to the nearest airport, Minsk,” a spokesperson for the low-cost airline, which is headquartered in Ireland, wrote in an e-mail. “Ryanair has notified the relevant national and European safety and security agencies and we apologise sincerely to all affected passengers for this regrettable delay which was outside Ryanair’s control.”

The statement did not mention reports that a military jet had been scrambled to escort the jetliner or that a passenger from the flight had been detained during the stop in Minsk.

Protasevich told colleagues earlier on Sunday he had been followed while travelling to the airport in Athens. A Russian speaker had followed him into a line at the airport and attempted to photograph his documents, he wrote to colleagues. They said they had not heard from him since.

Editors at Nexta who mostly live in exile have said they have been threatened with extraordinary rendition in the past. “We get [threats] all the time,” Stepan Svetlov, its founder, told the Guardian last year. “They say they’re going to blow the office up, they say they’re going to kidnap us and drive us back to Belarus.”


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