Worldwide outrage as Belarus 'hijacks' flight to detain government critic

Ruben Fields
May 25, 2021

Authorities in Belarus scrambled a fighter jet and flagged what turned out to be a false bomb alert to force a Ryanair plane to land, drawing global criticism.

Whether that security alert was a fabrication by the Belarus authorities is now at the heart of an incident which has sparked widespread worldwide condemnation and raised serious questions about safety in the skies.

However, opposition groups said it was an operation by Belarus special services to "hijack" the flight so they could arrest activist and blogger Roman Protasevich. For him the diversion was much more than an inconvenience.

Lithuanian Prime Minister Ingrida Simonyte told reporters several people arriving on the plane were asked to give evidence immediately after arriving on Sunday.

Last year, 26-year old Protasevich and Nexta founder Stepan Putilo, 22, were added to Belarus's list of "individuals involved in terrorist activity".

"Belarus must ensure safe return of crew and all passengers", he said.

The International Civil Aviation Organization said the incident may have contravened the Chicago Convention, a 1944 treaty that set rules for the burgeoning industry anticipated after World War Two and which underpins civil aviation today.

The plane was suddenly diverted to Minsk, the capital of Belarus, where authorities detained journalist Roman Protasevich.

Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda also claimed the plane was forced to land in Minsk and said Lukashenko's "regime is behind this".

Pratasevich is a co-founder of the Telegram messaging app's Nexta channel, which Belarus previous year declared as extremist after it was used to help organize major protests against Lukashenko.

The presidential press service said the bomb threat was received while the plane was over Belarusian territory; officials later said no explosives were found on board.

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"Not a single person who flies over Belarus can be sure of his safety".

Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya speaks during her news conference in Vilnius, Lithuania, Sunday, May 23, 2021.

Western countries also expressed alarm.

"The outrageous and illegal behaviour of the regime in Belarus will have consequences", European Union chief Ursula von der Leyen tweeted, calling for Protasevich's release, and adding those responsible "must be sanctioned".

Ursula von der Leyen, head of the EU's executive European Commission, said Belarus's action was "utterly unacceptable" and British foreign minister Dominic Raab said there would be serious implications for the "outlandish action".

The incident has drawn worldwide criticism, with Germany calling for an immediate explanation and Poland's prime minister describing it as a "reprehensible act of state terrorism".

Lithuania and Latvia have called for global flights not to use Belarusian airspace.

Belarus endured months of protests previous year after hundreds of thousands took to the streets to demonstrate against elections which gave Mr Lukashenko a sixth term in office amid widespread allegations the result was rigged.

"We hold the government of Belarus responsible for the security of all passengers and the aircraft", European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell tweeted.

He stressed that Poland demands the immediate release of Protasevich, as well as other detained Polish and Belarusian political activists, and urged Minsk to stop repressions against independent media and civilians.

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