European Union considers upping sanctions as UK and US call for international probe over diversion of Ryanair flight.
The diversion of a plane by Belarus and the subsequent arrest of a journalist on board has led to international outrage and prompted calls for sanctions.
The incident on Sunday saw a Belarusian MiG-29 fighter jet scramble to intercept a Ryanair flight from Greece to Lithuania over an alleged bomb threat, and escort it to Minsk.
Upon landing, Belarusian authorities took Roman Protasevich, 26, into custody.
From exile in Lithuania, Protasevich had helped an independent media outlet offer news about Belarus.
Protasevich’s whereabouts now remain unknown; Belarus’s political opposition is worried his life may be in danger.
Why was the plane diverted?
Ryanair said Belarusian air traffic control notified its crew of a “potential security threat on board” and instructed them to divert the plane to the nearest airport, Minsk.
Flight tracker sites indicated the plane was in Belarusian airspace and about 10km (6 miles) from the Lithuanian border when it was diverted.
Our FR4978 flight has landed safely in Vilnius at 19:25hrs UK time (21:25hrs local time). Here is Ryanair’s statement on today’s diversion to Minsk Airport 👇 pic.twitter.com/i0xhdpwTAF
— Ryanair Press Office (@RyanairPress) May 23, 2021
Protasevich and his girlfriend were reportedly led off the plane and taken away by police after it landed in Minsk.
The plane spent seven hours on the ground in the Belarusian capital while security checks were carried out by local authorities, during which “nothing untoward was found”, the airline said.
The plane was then allowed to continue to Vilnius.
Ryanair’s CEO Michael O’Leary described the move as “a case of state-sponsored hijacking” and “state-sponsored piracy”.
But Belarus on Monday gave a different account, saying its ground controllers had given guidance to the flight but not ordered it to land.
Deputy air force commander Andrei Gurtsevich said the plane’s crew had made the decision to land in Minsk, adding that the fighter jet was sent to “provide help to the civilian aircraft to ensure a safe landing”.
The decision to intervene had been ordered by Lukashenko, who has ruled Belarus for 27 years, state media reported.
How did Protasevich react?
After the 170 people on board were told of the diversion, “Roman stood up, opened the luggage compartment, took luggage and was trying to split things”, giving a laptop and phone to his girlfriend, Mantas, a passenger, told Reuters news agency.
Another passenger, Marius Rutkauskas, told The Associated Press news agency Protasevich and his girlfriend “freaked out when the pilot said the plane is diverted to Minsk … He said there’s death penalty awaiting him there.”
Who’s Protasevich and what punishment he faces?
Protasevich fled Belarus in 2019.
Last year, he edited the Poland-based Nexta Live news channel, which is based on Telegram.
The channel broadcast opposition protests against Lukashenko in 2020. Nexta also helped coordinate those same protests.
In November, Protasevich tweeted a copy of an official Belarusian list of “terrorists”, which included his name.
The listing said he was accused of organising mass riots while working at Nexta. He is also accused of disrupting social order and inciting social hatred – allegations he views as political repression.
Belarus opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who lost to Lukashenko in the August poll, believes Protasevich faces the death penalty in Belarus because he has been categorised as a “terrorist”.
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. pic.twitter.com/ondPBd0kU9
— Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya (@Tsihanouskaya) May 23, 2021