Belarus forces airliner to land, arrests opponent, sparking US and European outrage

Blogger and opposition activist Roman Protasevich, accused of participating in an unauthorized protest in the Kuropaty reserve, awaits the start of a hearing in Minsk, Belarus, April 10, 2017. Photo taken April 10, 2017 2017. – REUTERS / Stiffener

MOSCOW Belarusian authorities scrambled a fighter jet and reported what turned out to be a false bomb threat to force a Ryanair plane to land on Sunday, then arrested an opposition journalist who was on board, sparking the condemnation of Europe and the United States.

In what has been described by some EU leaders as a hijacking, the passenger plane from Athens to Lithuania was suddenly hijacked to Minsk, the capital of Belarus, escorted there by a MiG fighter jet. -29 of the Soviet era. During his disembarkation, the authorities took journalist Roman Protasevich into custody.

Mr Protasevich had his head in his hands and was shaking when he realized the flight was heading for Minsk, Lithuanian media outlet Delfi said, citing a passenger. Later, as he was taken away, according to the report, he remarked: “I will get the death penalty here.” Reuters could not verify the report.

The 26-year-old journalist worked for the Poland-based online news service NEXTA, which was broadcasting footage of mass protests against Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko last year through the Telegram messaging app at a time when he was difficult for the foreign media to do.

Mr Protasevich, who now works for another Telegram channel called Belamova, is wanted in Belarus for extremism and is accused of organizing mass riots and inciting social hatred, allegations he denies.

Data from flightradar24.com The website showed that the plane was hijacked just two minutes before it passed through Lithuanian airspace. After seven hours on the ground, the plane took off and finally landed in Vilnius where Lithuanian Prime Minister Ingrida Simonyte was waiting to meet the passengers.

As EU officials threatened new sanctions against Belarus, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken called the forced landing and arrest a “shocking act”, demanded the immediate release of Mr Protasevich, and called said President Joseph R. Biden, Jr, was “coordinating with our partners on the next steps.” “

Lithuania, an EU member state, where Protasevich is based, urged the European Union and NATO to respond.

Ursula von der Leyen, head of the EU’s European executive commission, said Protasevich must be released immediately and those responsible for the “Ryanair hijacking must be punished”, adding that EU leaders meeting in Brussels on Monday will discuss actions to be taken.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said in a tweet that the incident was serious and dangerous and required an international investigation.

Simon Coveney, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Ireland, where Ryanair is based, said on Twitter: “EU inaction or indecision will be seen as a weakness by Belarus.”

Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis said he discussed the hijacking of the Ryanair plane with US Assistant Secretary of State Philip Reeker, calling for a firm response from the West.

The US, along with the EU, Britain and Canada, have already imposed asset freezes and travel bans on nearly 90 Belarusian officials, including Lukashenko, following an election in August that opponents and the West call a sham.

‘ACT OF PIRACY’
US Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez issued a statement with the leaders of seven European parliamentary groups responsible for foreign affairs denouncing the forced landing as “an act of piracy.” They called for a ban on all overflights of Belarus, including to and from the country, and for NATO and EU states to impose sanctions and suspend “Belarus’ ability. to use Interpol ”.

Mr Blinken demanded a “full investigation” into an action which he said endangered the lives of passengers, including US citizens.

“Given the indications that the forced landing was based on false pretenses, we support the earliest possible meeting of the Council of the International Civil Aviation Organization to consider these events,” he said in a statement.

Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who like Protasevich now operates from Lithuania, called on the United Nations aviation agency, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), to expel Belarus.

ICAO said it was “deeply concerned” by the incident, which could have violated the Chicago Convention that underpins civil aviation. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) also called for a thorough investigation.

The incident is sure to worsen the already disastrous relations between the West and Belarus, which have been tightly controlled since 1994 by Mr. Lukashenko.

Opponents accuse him of rigging a presidential election in his favor last year, then cracking down on the opposition. He denies electoral fraud.

Ryanair said in a statement that the plane’s crew had been informed by Belarus of a potential threat to on-board safety and had been instructed to divert to the nearest airport, Minsk.

The plane landed safely, passengers were unloaded, security checks were carried out by local authorities and the plane then resumed its journey to Vilnius, Ryanair said.

One of the passengers, speaking to Reuters after arriving at Vilnius airport, said neither the pilot nor the crew gave a full explanation for the sudden diversion to Minsk, but Mr Protasevich reacted quickly to the news as he rose from his seat.

The Lithuanian passenger, who only gave his name as Mantas, said Mr Protasevich opened a hanging locker, took out a laptop and phone and gave them to a female companion. On landing, Mr. Protasevich was immediately separated, Mantas said.

Belarusian officials with sniffer dogs searched the luggage of every passenger, including Mr. Protasevich, but found nothing. “It sounded wrong,” Mantas said of the bomb detection operation.

Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda told a press conference on Sunday that Protasevich’s companion had also not resumed the flight from Minsk to Vilnius.

ON ORDERS FROM LUKASHENKO
Belarusian news agency BelTA reported that Lukashenko personally ordered the fighter plane to escort the Ryanair plane to Minsk. No explosives were found, he said.

Ben Hodges, former commander of US military forces in Europe, said Belarus’s air defenses are tightly integrated with those of Russia. “If something happened in Belarusian airspace, it would be impossible for the Kremlin or at least the Russian military forces not to know it, ”he said.

Mr. Nauseda urged “NATO and EU allies to react immediately to the threat posed to international civil aviation by the Belarusian regime”.

Lithuanian presidential adviser Asta Skaisgiryte said the operation to force the plane carrying around 170 people from 12 countries to land appeared to be preplanned.

The Belarusian Department for Combating Organized Crime reported that Protasevich had been arrested, before suppressing the statement from its Telegram channel.

About 35,000 people have been detained in Belarus since August, according to human rights groups. Dozens were sentenced to prison terms. Andrey Ostroukh and Andrius Sytas / Reuters


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