United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken has blasted Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko after Belarusian authorities hijacked a Ryanair flight.
‘We strongly condemn the Lukashenka regime’s brazen and shocking act to divert a commercial flight and arrest a journalist,’ Blinken said in a statement Sunday evening.
Blinken called for the immediate release of Roman Protasevich, 26, an opponent of President Lukashenko who was taken off the plane and arrested.
‘We demand an international investigation and are coordinating with our partners on next steps. The United States stands with the people of Belarus.’
Blinken added initial reports suggest the involvement of the Belarusian security services and use of Belarusian military aircraft to escort the plane. He said the development was ‘deeply concerning’.
The passenger plane full of tourists had been flying from Athens in Greece to Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, when it was escorted by a Soviet-era MiG-29 fighter jet, which reportedly had clearance to shoot, amid reports of a bomb on board.
The airliner was forced to make an emergency landing at Minsk Airport in Belarus, where authorities arrested Protasevich, a critic of Lukashenko who founded opposition news outlet Nexta in Poland.
The US’s top diplomat Antony Blinken blasted Belarus for faking a bomb threat on a Ryanair flight to kidnap a journalist
‘We strongly condemn the Lukashenka regime’s brazen and shocking act to divert a commercial flight and arrest a journalist,’ Blinken said in a statement Sunday evening
Blinken called for the immediate release of Roman Protasevich, 26, an opponent of President Lukashenko who was taken off the plane and arrested
Aviation experts have claimed the Belarus Air Force threatened to shoot down the passenger plane to force it to divert to Minsk.
The claim was publicized by leading Belarus opposition figure Pavel Latushko who said: ‘The air traffic controllers of Minsk-2 airport threatened to shoot at the Ryanair civilian plane with passengers on board. For this reason, a military fighter MiG-29 of Belarus Air Force was sent.
‘This proves again that this incident was an act of state terrorism… It demands an immediate reaction of European authorities and the entire world community.’
The claim was backed by Vadim Lukashevich, a Moscow-based aviation expert, who said: ‘To make it crystal clear – the pilots of the Ryanair plane that was forced to land in Belarus were pulling towards the destination Vilnius until the last possible moment.
‘They had to turn back under the threat of a fighter jet when the distance to Vilnius airport was only 45 miles away and only 19 miles to the Lithuanian border.’
He claimed the Ryanair pilots were ‘heading towards Lithuania without slowing down… they were escaping from the fighter jet, and they turned back just two minutes before crossing the Lithuanian border. ‘
The Ryanair flight left Athens bound for Vilnius in Lithuania Sunday morning, but it was intercepted by a MiG-29 fighter jet over Belarussian airspace and ordered to land at Minsk
Aviation experts have claimed that Belarus threatened to shoot down the Athens to Vilnius Ryanair flight unless it did not land immediately (pictured: a MiG-29 fighter jet involved in the incident arriving back at base in Belarus)
Flightradar data showed the plane had not slowed to descend at the usual height on this route but appeared to be flying as fast as possible to the border – before abruptly turning back, seemingly on the orders of the MiG-29.
Lukashevich said he is convinced that ‘the fighter had permission to shoot’.
‘And I am absolutely sure that the crew of the passenger aircraft turned around only after receiving a notification from the Belarusian fighter that, in case of disobedience, it would open fire before the passenger plane left the airspace of Belarus’, he said.
Such an order could only be given by the Belarus president, dictator Alexander Lukashenko, he added.
Several European airlines including AirBaltic, Air Austria and Wizz Air were avoiding Belarusian air space today as EU leaders were set to meet in Brussels to discuss furthers sanctions against Lukashenko.
But, Moscow’s spokeswoman has backed the Belarusian strong man, saying it was Russia that ought to be ‘shocked that the West calls the incident in Belarusian air space “shocking.”‘
The airliner full of tourists made an emergency landing at Minsk Airport today after being escorted by a MiG-29 fighter jet amid reports of a bomb on board
Suspicions have fallen on four Russian passengers who voluntarily departed in Minsk, not continuing with the flight when it travelled on to its final destination, the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius.
Their presence has stoked fears that Kremlin agents were involved in a murky operation to arrest Protasevich who had begged the crew not to follow the order, saying ‘they will kill me’ and telling a fellow passenger on the ground that he faced ‘the death penalty.’
A leading Russian investigative journalist Roman Dobrokhotov said four Russian passengers who had been on the flight from Athens, Greece, to Lithuania left it in Minsk.
He claimed: ‘Four citizens of Russia did not continue the flight to Vilnius… This operation was escorted by Russian special services.’
One of Russia’s most respected independent journalists Alexey Venediktov, editor-in-chief of Echo Moscow radio, also said: ‘Four more Russians didn’t follow on to Vilnius, but left the plane in Minsk, and dissolved into the nature.’
A member of the Nexta team, Tadeusz Giczan, also claimed on Twitter that representatives of the Belarusian security agency had been on the flight with Protasevich.
‘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.
A spokeswoman for state company Lithuanian Airports, Lina Beisine, told AFP that Minsk airport had said the flight was redirected ‘due to a conflict between a member of the crew and the passengers’.
Ryanair said the flight’s crew had been notified by Belarus air traffic control of ‘a potential security threat on board’ and were instructed to divert to Minsk, where Protasevich and his girlfriend Sofia Sapega were arrested.
Sapega is a student of the European Humanities University, now based in Vilnius, after its forced closure by Lukashenko’s authorities in Minsk.
She is a Russian citizen, and the university where she studies international law has expressed deep concern for her fate as political detainees in Belarus are frequently tortured by the KGB secret service and police.
Opposition journalist Roman Protasevich’s girlfriend Sofia Sapega who was also detained
Julie Fisher, the US Ambassador to Belarus, joined a wave of condemnatio
Julie Fisher, the US Ambassador to Belarus, earlier voiced her anger at the provocation.
‘Lukashenko and his regime today showed again its contempt for international community and its citizens. Faking a bomb threat and sending MiG-29s to force @RyanAir to Minsk in order to arrest a @Nexta journalist on politically motivated charges is dangerous and abhorrent.’
European countries have joined in the wave of condemnation against Belarus, with Britain calling Lukashenko a ‘Putin puppet’.
‘Lukashenko and his regime today showed again its contempt for international community and its citizens. Faking a bomb threat and sending MiG-29s to force @RyanAir to Minsk in order to arrest a @Nexta journalist on politically motivated charges is dangerous and abhorrent,’ said Julie Fisher, US Ambassador to Belarus
Former US Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul said: ‘This Lukashenko action is completely outrageous. Time for Europe to act.’
Garry Kasparov, the former chess world champion and outspoken critic of Putin, said: ‘I assume that Lukashenko’s explanation will be ‘go to hell’ as usual. And then what? Action, finally? The EU enables such terrorism with inaction, and it inevitably goes from domestic to international terror.’
Reports say Protasevich’s activism has led to him being included on a terror list, for which he could face the death penalty. Belarus is the last country in Europe to use the death penalty.
Critics of Lukashenko, regarded by many as the so-called last strongman of Europe, claimed the incident was confected by Minsk in order to detain Protasevich. They also claim Lukashenko would never have dared the move in EU airspace without receiving a green light from Vladimir Putin, his closest ally.
Garry Kasparov, the former chess world champion and outspoken critic of Putin, said: ‘I assume that Lukashenko’s explanation will be ‘go to hell’ as usual. And then what? Action, finally? The EU enables such terrorism with inaction, and it inevitably goes from domestic to international terror’
Former US Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul said: ‘This Lukashenko action is completely outrageous. Time for Europe to act’
The Ryanair flight was forced to land in Belarus following a ‘bogus bomb threat’ that was allegedly used as a ploy to arrest an opposition activist Roman Protasevich (pictured)
Ryanair boss O’Leary (left) described the act as ‘state-sponsored hijacking,’ while British MP Tom Tugendhat (right) called it ‘a warlike act,’
ROMAN PROTASEVICH: OPPOSITION BLOGGER FORCED INTO EXILE
Protasevich, 26, has long been a thorn in the side of Belarus’s hardline dictator Alexander Lukashenko.
He worked as an editor at the Poland-based Nexta Live channel, which is based on the Telegram messenger app and has over 1 million subscribers. The channel, which is openly hostile to Lukashenko, played an important role in broadcasting huge opposition protests against the President last year.
Nexta also helped coordinate those same protests, which were sparked by anger over what the opposition said was a rigged presidential election. The channel’s footage, which showed how harshly police cracked down on demonstrators, was used widely by international media at a time when the Belarusian authorities were reluctant to allow foreign media in.
In November Protasevich published a copy of an official Belarusian list of terrorists on which his name figured. The listing said he was accused of organising mass riots while working at Nexta. He also stands accused of disrupting social order and of inciting social hatred. He regards the allegations, which could see him jailed for years, as unjustified political repression.
Protasevich fled Belarus for Poland in 2019 due to pressure from the authorities, according to Media Solidarity, a group that supports Belarusian journalists. He moved his parents to Poland too after they were put under surveillance. He later relocated to Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, where opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya is also based.
Protasevich is currently editor-in-chief of a Belarusian political outlet hosted on the Telegram messaging app called ‘Belarus of the Brain’ which has around a quarter of a million subscribers.
He was flying back to Vilnius from Greece where he had spent time taking photographs of a visit there by Tsikhanouskaya. He had posted the pictures to social media before flying back.
The US and Britain are calling for toughening existing sanctions against Belarus, as European leaders from Germany, the Baltic states and the Czech Republic slammed the ‘outlandish’ Ryanair hijacking as ‘outrageous’, ‘illegal’ and an ‘act of state terrorism’.
Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab tweeted: ‘The UK is alarmed by reports of the arrest of journalist Roman Protasevich & circumstances that led to his flight being forced to land in Minsk. We are coordinating with our allies. This outlandish action by Lukashenko will have serious implications.’
The airline’s boss Michael O’Leary has condemned ‘state-sponsored piracy’ by Belarus, adding that ‘we believe there were some KGB agents offloaded at the airport as well.’
Tory MP Tom Tugendhat called it ‘a warlike act,’ joining the British and US governments, among other Western nations, who have condemned the grounding of the Ryanair flight.
‘This was a flight between two NATO members and between two EU members,’ the Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman told Radio 4. ‘If it’s not an act of war, it’s certainly a warlike act.’
Brussels is set to discuss strengthening sanctions against Belarus, imposed over the crackdown by the Lukashenko regime on opposition protesters, at a pre-planned summit on Monday.
EU chief Ursula von der Leyen tweeted: ‘The outrageous and illegal behavior of the regime in Belarus will have consequences. Those responsible for the Ryanair hijacking must be sanctioned. Journalist Roman Protasevich must be released immediately.’
Polish premier Mateusz Morawiecki denounced Belarus’s actions as ‘an act of state terrorism’, while French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian called for a ‘strong and united response’ from the EU. Lithuania and Latvia have called for international flights not to use Belarusian airspace.
Greek premier Kyriakos Mitsotakis denounced the Belarusian intervention of the Ryanair flight. He said: ‘The forced landing of a commercial plane to detain a journalist is an unprecedented, shocking act.
‘We demand all passengers’ immediate release. Tomorrow’s #EUCO [European Council] must address the need to step up pressure on Belarus. Enough is enough.’
NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg also said he was closely monitoring the situation, tweeting: ‘Closely monitoring forcible landing in Belarus of flight to Vilnius and reported detention of opposition figure Roman Protasevich.
‘This is a serious & dangerous incident which requires international investigation. Belarus must ensure safe return of crew & all passengers.’
An official Belarus Telegram channel claimed they saved Europe from a terrorist incident in bringing down the Ryanair plane bound for the Lithuanian capital Vilnius.
The Belarus defense ministry confirmed the detention of Protasevich, who had been living in exile.
Human rights center Vesna also said: ‘Roman Protasevich was detained. He was on the Ryanair flight Athens-Vilnius.’
Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s full statement on Belarus’s diversion of a Ryanair passenger flight
Data from the flightradar24.com website showed the plane was diverted just two minutes before it was due to cross into Lithuanian airspace.
After several hours in Minsk, the plane took off again for Vilnius, a top EU official said. Protasevich was not on board the flight this time.
After finally landing in Vilnius several hours after the scheduled time of arrival, some passengers described seeing the blogger looking nervous as the flight was diverted to Belarus.
‘He just turned to people and said he was facing the death penalty,’ Monika Simkiene, a 40-year-old Lithuanian, told AFP.
Edvinas Dimsa, 37, said: ‘He was not screaming, but it was clear that he was very much afraid. It looked like if the window had been open, he would have jumped out of it.’
Opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, widely seen to have won last year’s presidential election against Lukashenko before being forced into exile, said: ‘It is absolutely obvious that this is an operation by the special services to hijack an aircraft in order to detain the activist and blogger Roman Protasevich.
‘The regime endangered the safety of passengers on board and all civil aviation for the sake of reprisals against a man who was the editor of the largest Belarusian independent Telegram channels.
‘Only for this he was recognized as a terrorist, and only for this now in Belarus Roman can face the death penalty.
‘We have already informed the Ryanair office and the International Civil Aviation Organisation, demanding to start an investigation into the incident and take measures up to the exclusion of Belarus from ICAO,’ Tikhanovskaya added.
She warned: ‘From now on, not a single person flying over Belarus can be sure of their safety. After all, the regime is abusing the rules of air traffic in order to capture those who disagree.’
Belarusian dog handler checks luggage from the Ryanair flight in Minsk International Airport on May 23
Journalists and Belarusian activists wait to see passengers of the Ryanair plane carrying opposition figure Raman Pratasevich at the International Airport outside Vilnius, Lithuania
Mantas, a Lithuanian passenger of Ryanair flight FR4978, speaks to the media after arriving at Vilnius Airport, Lithuania
Protasevich (pictured at ‘Freedom Day’ rally in Minsk in 2012 was taken off the Ryanair flight and into custody on Sunday
Meanwhile the Prime Minister of Estonia Kaja Kallas said: ‘Absolutely inexplicable and shocking reports from Belarus about detaining Roman Protasevich and forcing the plane to land.
‘All passengers should be immediately released and a thorough international investigation should follow. EU must take a stand together.
MEP Roberta Metsola also called for Europe to act now in response to the forced landing.
She said: ‘Now is the time for Europe to act in unison. Extended sanctions, independent international investigations and immediate release of dissidents.
‘We must be able to guarantee safety and security of air passenger travel. Leaders meeting at #EUCO tomorrow must act.’
The incident is certain to worsen already dire relations between the West and Belarus, which has been tightly controlled since 1994 by President Alexander Lukashenko.
Opponents accuse him of rigging a presidential election in his own favor last year and of then cracking down violently on the opposition. He denies electoral fraud.
The Ryanair flight is parked at Minsk International Airport on Sunday after it was stopped by authorities
British Conservative MP Damian Collins condemned the ‘hijacking’ in a statement. He said: ‘This is an appalling act of hijacking by a rogue state.
‘Belarus must release Roman Protasevich, give him safe passage to Lithuania and compensate the airline and passengers. Without this they should face serious sanctions.’
Ryanair said in a statement that the plane’s crew was notified by Belarus of a potential security threat on board and were instructed to divert to the nearest airport, Minsk.
The plane landed safely, passengers were offloaded and security checks were made by local authorities, it said, saying it expected the aircraft to resume its journey later on Sunday.
Protasevich worked for an online opposition news service Nexta, a Telegram channel that broadcast footage of mass protests against Lukashenko last year at a time when it was hard for foreign media to do so.
He is wanted in Belarus on extremism charges and stands accused of organising mass riots and of inciting social hatred, allegations he denies.
Belarusian news agency BelTA reported that Lukashenko had personally ordered the warplane to escort the Ryanair plane to Minsk. No explosives were found, it said.
Police officers detained Roman Protasevich after he was attempting to cover a rally in Minsk, Belarus on 26 March 2017
The Ryanair plane, which was carrying blogger Roman Protasevich and was diverted to Belarus, lands at Vilnius Airport in Vilnius, Lithuania on Sunday
Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda called for an international response.
‘I call on NATO and EU allies to immediately react to the threat posed to international civil aviation by the Belarus regime. The international community must take immediate steps that this does not repeat,’ Nauseda said.
Lithuanian presidential adviser Asta Skaisgiryte said the operation to force the plane carrying around 170 people from 12 countries to land seemed to be pre-planned.
Protasevich had said that at Athens airport a bald Russian-speaking middle-aged man had attempted to film the main page of his passport. He then turned and left.
Lithuanian Prime Minister Ingrida Simonyte came to Vilnius Airport for the plane’s arrival on Sunday, as did dozens of Belarusian opposition supporters
A woman covered with an old Belarusian national flag holds a phone with a sticker in colors of an old Belarusian national flag as she waits to see passengers of the Ryanair plane carrying opposition figure Raman Pratasevich
Protesters holding signs reading ‘Where is Roman?’ were at Vilnius airport when the diverted flight landed
Pro-opposition supporters gathered in Vilnius airport in a show of support for Protasevich
NEXTA was closely involved in reporting a wave of opposition protests that last year threatened to topple Lukashenko, before he was given backing by Vladimir Putin
NEXTA was closely involved in reporting a wave of opposition protests that last year threatened to topple Lukashenko, before he was given backing by Vladimir Putin.
A message being retweeted in Russia read: ‘Detention of Protasevich (NEXTA) is a splendid, beautiful, complicated, (operation) in the best traditions of the Soviet KGB, the work of the Belorussian CHEKA (state security). You are cool!’
NEXTA reported: ‘Protasevich was on board a flight heading from Athens to Vilnius. He faces the death penalty in Belarus.
‘The Lukashists [derogatory term for supporters of embattled President Lukashenko] seized the plane in order to arrest Protasevich,’ the channel said.
The Belarus authorities claimed its bomb-disposal squad was examining the plane.
The official Minsk version said: ‘Belarus defended Europe. Information has been received that the plane has been mined.’
The plane had almost left Belarus air space but was forced to land in Minsk.
‘The situation was immediately reported to the President. Lukashenko gave an unconditional command to turn the plane around and receive it.
‘In this situation, the most important thing is the safety and lives of people.’
The Belarusian department for organised crime control reported that Protasevich had been detained before deleting the statement from its Telegram channel.
Around 35,000 people have been detained in Belarus since August, human rights groups say. Dozens have received jail terms. Authorities say that more than 1,000 criminal cases have been launched.