US, EU Accuse Belarus of Terrorism After Plane Diverted to Arrest Journalist

Henrietta Strickland
May 25, 2021

Irish airline Ryanair said in a statement on Sunday that its flight FR4978 from Athens to Vilnius, Lithuania, was notified by Belarusian authorities of "a potential security threat on board" and was "instructed to divert to the nearest airport, Minsk". "DOT and FAA are working closely with the State Department and other US agencies to understand precisely what happened, and what actions may need to be taken to keep the flying public safe".

Separately, the White House said that national security adviser Jake Sullivan on Monday spoke with Belarus opposition leader Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya.

The move came as Belarusian state television broadcast a 30-second video of Protasevich, who had been living between Lithuania and Poland, confirming that he was in prison in Minsk and "confessing" to charges of organising mass unrest. Sofia Sapega, a 23-year-old student travelling with him, was also detained.

Appearing on several channels of the Telegram messaging app on Monday, Protasevich, 26, acknowledged playing a role in organising mass disturbances in Minsk previous year.

US President Joe Biden said late Monday that he asked his team to develop appropriate options to hold accountable those responsible in close coordination with the European Union other allies and partners and global organizations.

Asked about the arrest of Belarusian blogger Roman Pratasevich, a key foe of authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko who was on the same flight, Zisis said, "I saw him, but I did not know who or what he was".

This astonishing episode constitutes a new phase in the Belarusian authorities campaign of repression against journalists and civil society in general Colville said.

Lukashenko and his allies are already under a series of Western sanctions over a brutal crackdown on opposition protests that followed his disputed re-election to a sixth term in August past year.

This outrageous incident and the video Mr. Protasevich appears to have made under duress are shameful assaults on both political dissent and the freedom of the press Bidens statement said.

To his father, Dzmitry Protasevich, the video comments on Monday seemed to be a result of coercion. "He is acting very reserved and you can see he is nervous", Protasevich said of his son.

"He would never speak like that".

Minsk said it had reacted to secure the flight after receiving a bomb threat, supposedly from Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, but European leaders dismissed the claim as implausible.

Lukashenko - who scrambled a Belarusian fighter jet to intercept the Ryanair flight - has remained defiant in the face of sanctions with help from his main backer Russian Federation.

Belarus isolation deepened Tuesday as commercial planes avoided its airspace the European Union worked up new sanctions and a senior United Nations official said he was concerned for the welfare of an opposition journalist arrested in Minsk after his plane was diverted there apparently on the orders of the country's longtime strongman.

Two U.S. senators urged the Biden administration to prohibit U.S. airlines from entering Belarus airspace because of the incident.

Soon after, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy ordered the government to stop direct flights with Belarus. Months of protests followed, representing the strongest challenge to Lukashenko's rule since he took over in 1994 following the demise of the Soviet Union. More than 34,000 people have been arrested since August, including opposition activists, and thousands have been beaten and abused by police to try to stem the protests.

Seven activists, including senior opposition figure Pavel Severinets, were sentenced on Tuesday to jail terms of four to seven years after being found guilty of taking part in "mass unrest".

Other reports by Click Lancashire

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