EU Fury Mounts After Belarus Forces Landing of Plane Carrying Opposition Blogger

Henrietta Strickland
May 25, 2021

The plane was then escorted by a Belarusian fighter jet to a Minsk airport.

Belarus insisted it had acted legally over the grounding of the Ryanair jet, accusing the West of making "unfounded accusations" for political reasons.

A Belarusian university in Vilnius said one of its students, Sofia Sapega, 23, who had been travelling with Protasevich, had also been detained in Minsk.

"Any flights to or from Lithuanian airports via Belarusian airspace are prohibited" from Tuesday, Transport Minister Marius Skuodis told a government meeting in the capital Vilnius.

There are suspicions circulating over the incident, as it seems that according to the airplane's flight path as shown on the flightradar24 website, the plane was closer to Vilnius than Minsk when it diverted.

"We all on the plane had panicked because we thought we were going to crash", Lithuanian passenger Raselle Grigoryeva told broadcaster ABC News.

The other three are likely Belarus KGB agents, say Lithuanian officials, but there are also local reports that at least two were Russians, prompting speculation in the Belarus opposition media that they may have been Russian intelligence officers.

The Belarusian Ministry of Foreign Affairs resented what was called a "warlike" European Union statement, claiming that Minsk authorities acted "fully in full compliance with worldwide rules".

Another exhausted passenger, speaking to reporters without giving her name, said Protasevich looked "super scared".

The U.S. and the European Union already have imposed sanctions on top Belarusian officials amid months of protests, which were triggered by Lukashenko's reelection to a sixth presidential term in an August vote that the opposition rejected as rigged.

Latvia's Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics called Belarus's action "contrary to global law" and called for a "strong and effective" reaction, while Germany demanded an "immediate explanation" from Belarus.

The International Civil Aviation Organization, or ICAO, posted a tweet saying it was "strongly concerned by the apparent forced landing".

"We are assessing the situation and do not rule out any action", the source said.

Slovak top representatives respond to the recent detention of Belarusian opposition journalist, while the ministry summoned Belarusian chargé d'affaires. In 2019 he left Belarus because of the threat to his freedom for cooperation with the independent Telegram channel Nexta.

Lukashenko denies election fraud.

Ryanair, in a short statement, said the plane was told to divert to Minsk by Belarusian air traffic control because of a "potential security threat on-board".

The aircraft landed safely and passengers were offloaded while security checks were completed by local authorities.

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Ryanair Sun 737-800 SP-RSM departed Athens (ATH) at 07:29 UTC and entered Belarus airspace at 09:30.

NEXTA, Protasevich's organization, which operates on the social messaging platform Telegram, had been key to disseminating images of state violence during protests past year, activists say.

The journalist, who now works for a different Telegram channel called Belamova and who describes himself on Twitter ironically as the first "journalist-terrorist" in history, is based in Lithuania.

Last year, Protasevich and Putilo were accused by Belarusian authorities of a number of crimes including organising mass riots.

Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda condemned Belarus's actions, demanding Protasevich be released and calling on for an worldwide response.

Exiled opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya called on the International Civil Aviation Organisation to open an investigation into what happened.

"Lithuania can take some steps on its own, but we expect the main response to be an worldwide one", Landsbergis told reporters. "Yet we will stress that it'll be important that the conditions of people in Belarus don't worsen, and that regular people won't be cut off from their world". Dozens have received jail terms. Lufthansa said it was cooperating with the authorities, and luggage and freight had been unloaded for additional searches.

Other reports by Click Lancashire

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