Belarus’ president Alexander Lukashenko ordered a fighter jet to intercept a passenger plane and force it to land in the Belarus capital, where authorities promptly seized and detained a prominent opposition journalist who was on board the flight.
Roman Protasevich, the 26-year-old journalist, was arrested on Sunday May 23 after the Ryanair plane he was traveling on from Greece to Lithuania was forced to divert and land in Minsk.
The flight, which was carrying about 170 passengers, was flying over Belarus when Belarusian air controllers warned the pilots of “a potential security threat on board” and directed the plane to divert to Minsk, Ryanair said in a statement.
The Belarus presidential press service said Lukashenko ordered a MiG-29 fighter jet to accompany the plane after he was informed of the bomb threat and gave an “unequivocal order” to “make the plane do a U-turn and land,” according to the New York Times.
When the plane stopped, Protasevich was arrested, the Belarus interior ministry said in a statement that was later deleted from its Telegram channel.
No bomb was found on board, Belarus authorities said. Authorities say they have opened a criminal case into a false bomb threat.
Protasevich, a co-founder of a popular opposition NEXTA Telegram channel, had been living in Lithuania in exile since 2019. He has been accused of inciting hatred and mass disorder in Belarus and faces a possible prison sentence of more than 12 years, according to the BBC.
He had been flying back from attending an economic conference in Greece and had noticed a bald man following him at Athens airport, according to messages he sent to the Telegram channel.
A passenger on the flight told AFP that Protasevich had turned to the fellow passengers “and said he was facing the death penalty” when he found out about the plane’s diversion.
“He was not screaming, but it was clear that he was very much afraid,” another passenger told AFP. “It looked like if the window had been open, he would have jumped out of it.”
“We sat for an hour after the landing. Then they started releasing passengers and took [Protasevich and his girlfriend]. We did not see them again,” the passengers said.
After Protasevich’s arrest, his colleagues said they immediately revoked his access to the Telegram channel to ensure authorities would not be able to access the data.
The plane took off again from Minsk after about seven hours on the ground and landed at Vilnius 35 minutes later.
The incident has prompted widespread international outrage, with Western countries condemning it as a “hijacking” by the Belarusian government.
Greece’s President called the incident a “state-sponsored terror act” while Lithuania’s president, said the actions were “abhorrent” and called for Belarus’ airspace to be declared unsafe and for Belarusian aircraft not to be accepted at EU airports, according to the New York Times
EU leaders are meeting on Monday to discuss the incident, and NATO ambassadors will also meet on Tuesday.
Ursula von der Leyen, the head of the European Commission, said “the outrageous and illegal behaviour… will have consequences.”
French officials say EU officials are working on measures that include banning planes from flying over Belarus, banning flights from Belarus’ national airline into EU countries and suspending ground transport links, the BBC reported.
“This was a case of state-sponsored hijacking… state-sponsored piracy,” Ryanair’s CEO Michael O’Leary told an Irish radio station on Monday, adding that he believes there were KGB agents on board the flights who also offboarded at Minsk.
On Sunday, demonstrators also gathered to call for Protasevich’s release.
Since Lukashenko’s re-election last August, mass protests have taken place in Belarus demanding his resignation. Riot police have responded harshly by beating and detaining protesters. Since then, more than 33,000 people have been detained, and more than 1,800 criminal cases were opened against activists, according to human rights group Viasna.
Protesters say the contested election last year was rigged in order to extend Lukashenko’s rule since 1994.