© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko attends the Roundtable Summit Phase One Sessions of Belt and Road Forum on the International Conference Center in Yanqi Lake on May 15, 2017 in Beijing, China. REUTERS/Lintao Zhang/Pool/File Photo
By Andrey Ostroukh and Andrius Sytas
MOSCOW (Reuters) -Belarusian authorities scrambled a fighter jet and flagged what turned out to be a false bomb alert to power a Ryanair airplane to land on Sunday and then detained an opposition-minded journalist who was on board, drawing condemnation from Europe and the United States.
In what was described by some EU leaders as a hijacking, the passenger airplane flying from Athens to Lithuania was all of a sudden diverted to Minsk, the capital of Belarus, escorted there by a Soviet-era MiG-29 fighter jet. On its touchdown, authorities took journalist Roman Protasevich into custody.
Protasevich had his head in his fingers and was shaking when he realised the flight was headed for Minsk, Lithuania’s Delfi information outlet stated, quoting a passenger. Later, as he was led away, in accordance to the report, he remarked: “I’ll get the death penalty here.” Reuters couldn’t confirm the report.
The 26-year-old journalist labored for Poland-based on-line information service NEXTA, which broadcast footage of mass protests towards Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko final yr by way of the Telegram messenger app at a time when it was arduous for international media to achieve this.
Protasevich who now works for a special Telegram channel known as Belamova, is needed in Belarus on extremism expenses and stands accused of organising mass riots and of inciting social hatred, allegations he denies.
Data from the flightradar24.com web site confirmed the airplane was diverted simply two minutes earlier than it was due to cross into Lithuanian airspace. After seven hours on the bottom, the airplane took off and lastly landed in Vilnius the place Lithuanian Prime Minister Ingrida Simonyte was ready to meet the passengers.
As European officers threatened new sanctions on Belarus, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken known as the compelled touchdown and arrest a “shocking act,” demanded Protasevich’s quick launch and stated President Joe Biden’s administration was “coordinating with our partners on next steps.”
EU member state Lithuania, the place Protasevich relies, urged the European Union and NATO to reply.
Ursula von der Leyen, head of the EU’s govt European Commission, stated Protasevich should be launched instantly and that these liable for “the Ryanair hijacking must be sanctioned,” including EU leaders assembly in Brussels on Monday would focus on what motion to take.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg stated in a tweet that the incident was critical and harmful and required a world investigation.
Simon Coveney, international minister of Ireland, the place Ryanair relies, stated on Twitter: “EU inaction or indecision will be taken as weakness by Belarus.”
Lithuania’s international minister, Gabrielius Landsbergis, stated he mentioned the Ryanair airplane diversion with U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Philip Reeker, urging a powerful response from the West.
The United States together with the EU, Britain and Canada have already imposed asset freezes and journey bans on virtually 90 Belarusian officers, together with Lukashenko, following an August election that opponents and the West say was a sham.
‘ACT OF PIRACY’
U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez issued a press release with the heads of seven European parliamentary international affairs panels denouncing the compelled touchdown as “an act of piracy.” They known as for a ban on all overflights of Belarus, together with to and from the nation, and for NATO and EU states to impose sanctions and droop Belarus’ “ability to use Interpol.”
Blinken demanded a “full investigation” of an motion he stated endangered the lives of the passengers, together with U.S. residents.
“Given indications the forced landing was based on false pretenses, we support the earliest possible meeting of the Council of the International Civil Aviation Organization to review these events,” he stated in a press release.
Belarusian opposition chief Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who like Protasevich now operates from Lithuania, known as on the U.N. aviation company, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), to kick Belarus out.
ICAO stated it was “strongly concerned” over the incident, which could have breached the Chicago Convention underpinning civil aviation. Global airline business physique IATA additionally known as for a full investigation.
The incident is definite to worsen already dire relations between the West and Belarus, which has been tightly managed since 1994 by Lukashenko.
Opponents accuse him of rigging a presidential election in his personal favour final yr and of then cracking down violently on the opposition. He denies electoral fraud.
Ryanair stated in a press release that the airplane’s crew was notified by Belarus of a possible safety risk on board and was instructed to divert to the closest airport, Minsk.
The airplane landed safely, passengers had been offloaded, safety checks had been made by native authorities and the plane later resumed its journey to Vilnius, Ryanair stated.
One of the passengers, talking to Reuters after arriving at Vilnius airport, stated neither the pilot nor the crew gave a full clarification for the sudden diversion to Minsk, however Protasevich reacted shortly to the information, standing up from his seat.
The Lithuanian passenger, who gave his title solely as Mantas, stated Protasevich opened an overhead locker, pulled out a laptop computer pc and a cellphone and gave them to a feminine companion. On touchdown, Protasevich was instantly separated, Mantas stated.
Belarusian officers with sniffer canine searched the bags of every passenger, together with Protasevich, however appeared to discover nothing. “It looked fake,” Mantas stated of the bomb-detection operation.
Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda informed a information convention late on Sunday that Protasevich’s feminine companion had additionally not re-embarked on the flight from Minsk to Vilnius.
ON LUKASHENKO’S ORDERS
Belarusian information company BelTA reported that Lukashenko had personally ordered the warplane to escort the Ryanair airplane to Minsk. No explosives had been discovered, it stated.
Ben Hodges, former commander of U.S. Army forces in Europe, stated the air defenses of Belarus had been intently built-in with these of Russia. “If you had anything happening in the Belarus airspace, it would be impossible for the Kremlin – or at least Russian military forces – not to know about it,” he stated.
Nauseda urged “NATO and EU allies to immediately react to the threat posed to international civil aviation by the Belarus regime.”
Lithuanian presidential adviser Asta Skaisgiryte stated the operation to power the airplane carrying round 170 folks from 12 nations to land appeared to be pre-planned.
The Belarusian division for organised crime management reported that Protasevich had been detained, earlier than deleting the assertion from its Telegram channel.
About 35,000 folks have been detained in Belarus since August, human rights teams say. Dozens have acquired jail phrases.