Belarus scrambles fighter to force airliner to land, arrests opponent
Belarusian authorities scrambled a fighter jet and flagged what turned out to be a false bomb alert to force a Ryanair plane to land on Sunday and then detained an opposition-minded journalist who was on board, drawing criticism from across Europe.
In the dramatic incident, described by one EU leader as a hijacking, a Soviet-era MiG-29 fighter jet escorted a Ryanair-operated passenger plane flying from Athens to Lithuania. The plane was suddenly diverted to Minsk, the capital of Belarus, where authorities detained journalist Roman Protasevich.
Protasevich had his head in his hands and was shaking when he realised the flight was headed for Minsk, Lithuania's Delfi news outlet said, quoting a passenger. Later, as he was led away, according to the report, he remarked: "I'll get the death penalty here." Reuters could not verify the report.
Data from the flightradar24.com website showed the plane was diverted just two minutes before it was due to cross into Lithuanian airspace. After several hours in Minsk, the plane took off and finally landed in Vilnius where Lithuanian Prime Minister Ingrida Simonyte was waiting to meet the passengers.
EU member state Lithuania, where Protasevich is based, urged the European Union and NATO to respond. 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 called it a "reprehensible act of state terrorism" and said he was pushing for a summit of EU leaders this week to discuss immediate sanctions against Minsk.
"I condemn in the strongest terms the detention of Roman Protasevich by Belarusian authorities, after a Ryanair passenger aircraft was hijacked," Mateusz Morawiecki said on Twitter.
A spokesperson for European Council Chairman Charles Michel said EU leaders would discuss "consequences and possible sanctions" over the incident. Michel in a separate statement called for Protasevich to be released.
Last year, Protasevich was an editor for Poland-based Nexta Live, which played an important role in broadcasting huge opposition protests against Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko via the Telegram messenger app.
Germany called for an immediate explanation of the incident, and Ursula von der Leyen, 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 the "outlandish action".
Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who like Protasevich now operates from Lithuania, called on the U.N. aviation agency, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), to kick Belarus out.
ICAO said it was "strongly concerned" over the incident which might have breached the Chicago Convention, underpinning civil aviation. Global airline industry body IATA also called for a full investigation.
The incident is certain to worsen already dire relations between the West and Belarus, which has been tightly controlled since 1994 by President 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.
APPEAL TO NATO
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.
The plane landed safely, passengers were offloaded and security checks were made by local authorities, it said, saying it expected the aircraft to resume its journey later on Sunday.
Protasevich, 26, worked for an online opposition news service NEXTA, a Telegram channel that broadcast footage of mass protests against Lukashenko last year at a time 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.
He is wanted in Belarus on extremism charges and stands accused of organising mass riots and of inciting social hatred, allegations he denies.
Belarusian news agency BelTA reported that Lukashenko had personally ordered the warplane to escort the Ryanair plane to Minsk. No explosives were found, it said.
Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda called for an international response.
"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," Nauseda said.
Lithuanian presidential adviser Asta Skaisgiryte said the operation to force the plane carrying around 170 people from 12 countries to land seemed to be pre-planned.
The Belarusian department for organised crime control reported that 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 1,000 criminal cases have been launched.