Ryanair flight carrying wanted Belarusian journalist forced to land in Minsk

Brenda Watkins
May 25, 2021

On the ground, security agents arrested Roman Protasevich, founder of the social media news channel, NEXTA, which played a crucial role in the protests last summer.

European Union leaders will discuss toughening their sanctions regime against Belarus on Monday at their planned summit, after Minsk diverted a passenger flight and arrested an opposition activist.

"An ICAO investigation of the incident will be essential", he declared, referring to the International Civil Aviation Organisation, a United Nations agency.

File photo. Minsk airport.

The news service for the airport in Minsk, the Belarusian capital, said the plane was diverted because of a bomb scare.

Months of protests arose after last August's presidential election that official results say gave Lukashenko a sixth term in office.

Belarus' crackdown against the political opposition since last year's disputed presidential election has led to USA and European Union sanctions.

Belarusian authorities said there were 123 passengers on the plane, which resumed its trip to Vilnius later Sunday.

In 2020, Protasevich and Nexta founder Stepan Putilo, 22, were added to Belarus's list of "individuals involved in terrorist activity".

The Lithuanian president responded in kind, calling Sunday's events an "abhorrent action" committed by Belarus. Ursula von der Leyen, President of the EU Commission says in a statement: "Any violation of global air transport rules must bear consequences".

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Alongside elite athletes Jing and Guanjun, local media reported father-of-one Lu Zhengyi as one of the victims. Provincial authorities have set up an investigation team to look into the cause of the incident, Zhang said.

Protasevich's detention has evoked strong reactions across the world. It made no mention of Protasevich in the statement.

Belarus' authorities placed Protasevich on a terrorism watchlist last year and have opened criminal cases against him on charges of organizing mass riots and inciting hatred, offenses that carry sentences of up to 12 to 15 years in prison.

Belarus had also labelled the Nexta Telegram channels and its logo "extremist" and ordered it blocked. It added that he had also ordered a Mig-29 fighter jet to accompany the aircraft.

The International Civil Aviation Organization released a short statement, saying: "ICAO is strongly concerned by the apparent forced landing of a Ryanair flight and its passengers, which could be in contravention of the Chicago Convention".

"It is absolutely obvious that this is an operation of secret services to capture the plane in order to detain activist and blogger Roman Protasevich", exiled opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya said on Telegram.

The opposition says that Tikhanovskaya, who fled to neighbouring Lithuania after the election, was the true victor of last year's presidential vote.

On board the flight was Roman Protasevich, a blogger and journalist who fled the country in 2019.

"Then when the plane had entered Belarus airspace, the KGB officers initiated a fight with the Ryanair crew insisting there's an IED onboard", he said.

Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis said there were 171 passengers aboard the flight, a lot of them Lithuanian nationals. The European Union and US have not recognized his legitimacy and have imposed sanctions on his inner circle.

Belarus's most popular news website, Tut.by, went offline last week as authorities intensified their attack on independent media.

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