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Belarus forces airliner to land and arrests opponent, sparking U.S. and European outrage

WorldMay 24, 2021 08:58PM ET
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3/3 © Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko attends the Roundtable Summit Phase One Sessions of Belt and Road Forum at the International Conference Center in Yanqi Lake on May 15, 2017 in Beijing, China. REUTERS/Lintao Zhang/Pool/File Photo 2/3

By Andrey Ostroukh and Andrius Sytas

MOSCOW (Reuters) -Belarusian authorities scrambled a fighter jet and flagged what turned out to be a false bomb alert to force a Ryanair plane to land on Sunday and then detained an opposition-minded journalist who was on board, drawing condemnation from Europe and the United States.

In what was described by some EU leaders as a hijacking, the passenger plane flying from Athens to Lithuania was suddenly diverted to Minsk, the capital of Belarus, escorted there by a Soviet-era MiG-29 fighter jet. On its landing, authorities took journalist Roman Protasevich into custody.

Protasevich had his head in his hands and was shaking when he realised the flight was headed for Minsk, Lithuania's Delfi news outlet said, quoting a passenger. Later, as he was led away, according to the report, he remarked: "I'll get the death penalty here." Reuters could not verify the report.

The 26-year-old journalist worked for Poland-based online news service NEXTA, which broadcast footage of mass protests against Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko last year via the Telegram messenger app at a time when it was hard for foreign media to do so.

Protasevich who now works for a different Telegram channel called Belamova, is wanted in Belarus on extremism charges and stands accused of organising mass riots and of inciting social hatred, allegations he denies.

Data from the flightradar24.com website showed the plane was diverted just two minutes before it was due to cross into 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 European officials threatened new sanctions on Belarus, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken called the forced landing and arrest a "shocking act," demanded Protasevich's immediate release and said President Joe Biden's administration was "coordinating with our partners on next steps."

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

Ursula von der Leyen, head of the EU's executive European Commission, said Protasevich must be released immediately and that those responsible for "the Ryanair hijacking must be sanctioned," adding EU leaders meeting in Brussels on Monday would discuss what action to take.

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

Simon Coveney, foreign minister of Ireland, where Ryanair is based, said on Twitter: "EU inaction or indecision will be taken as weakness by Belarus."

Lithuania's foreign minister, Gabrielius Landsbergis, said he discussed the Ryanair plane diversion with U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Philip Reeker, urging a strong response from the West.

The United States along with the EU, Britain and Canada have already imposed asset freezes and travel bans on almost 90 Belarusian officials, including Lukashenko, following an August election that opponents and the West say was a sham.

'ACT OF PIRACY'

U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez issued a statement with the heads of seven European parliamentary foreign affairs panels 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."

Blinken demanded a "full investigation" of an action he said endangered the lives of the passengers, including U.S. citizens.

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

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

ICAO said it was "strongly concerned" over the incident, which might have breached the Chicago Convention underpinning civil aviation. Global airline industry body IATA also called for a full investigation.

The incident is certain to worsen already dire relations between the West and Belarus, which has been tightly controlled since 1994 by Lukashenko.

Opponents accuse him of rigging a presidential election in his own favour last year and of then cracking down violently on the opposition. He denies electoral fraud.

Ryanair said in a statement that the plane's crew was notified by Belarus of a potential security threat on board and was instructed to divert to the nearest airport, Minsk.

The plane landed safely, passengers were offloaded, security checks were made by local authorities and the aircraft later 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 Protasevich reacted quickly to the news, standing up from his seat.

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

Belarusian officials with sniffer dogs searched the luggage of each passenger, including Protasevich, but appeared to find nothing. "It looked fake," Mantas said of the bomb-detection operation.

Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda told a news conference late on Sunday that Protasevich's female companion had also not re-embarked on the flight from Minsk to Vilnius.

ON LUKASHENKO'S ORDERS

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.

Ben Hodges, former commander of U.S. Army forces in Europe, said the air defenses of Belarus were closely integrated with those of Russia. "If you had anything happening in the Belarus airspace, it would be impossible for the Kremlin - or at least Russian military forces - not to know about it," he said.

Nauseda urged "NATO and EU allies to immediately react to the threat posed to international civil aviation by the Belarus regime."

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.

The Belarusian department for organised crime control reported that Protasevich had been detained, before deleting the statement from its Telegram channel.

About 35,000 people have been detained in Belarus since August, human rights groups say. Dozens have received jail terms.

Belarus forces airliner to land and arrests opponent, sparking U.S. and European outrage
 

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Comments (12)
Ad Cline
Ad Cline May 25, 2021 1:48AM ET
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gene Kret a Russian bot spewing Putin's propaganda and supporter of misinformation campaigns that brutal dictators use to maintain their power.
Pat Mathieu
Pat Mathieu May 25, 2021 1:48AM ET
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Stop swallowing every word that comes out of your MSM anchor idols, Cuomo, Lemon, etc.. What does that make you (?)
David David
David9 May 25, 2021 1:48AM ET
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Ad Cline.... my advise for you is to read less western news because looks like you got brainwashed from the propaganda machines...
Gene Kret
Gene Kret May 25, 2021 1:40AM ET
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Dont mess with Minsk. Think of the intell to track this 26 year old punk. Finally a country that will not stand for FAKE NEWS! Btw, do you think China would allow AOC to freely fly the China friendly skys?
Ad Cline
Ad Cline May 25, 2021 1:40AM ET
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Minsk pathetic and powerless. brutalizing it's people. showing the world..... cowards.
Cody Heck
Cody Heck May 24, 2021 10:03PM ET
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Where's the same energy for the Khashoggi *****"free" world.
Silence Dogood
Silence Dogood May 24, 2021 10:03PM ET
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Khashoggi was a journalist who jabbed his finger in the eye of a deplorable regime for years and then walked right into their embassy.. he thought he could flip them the bird openly as he pleased without any repercussions.. welp..  The dude was not a smart man.. natural selection on that one.
Hani Benim
Hani Benim May 24, 2021 9:00PM ET
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Using a fighter jet to kidnap a passenger plane. That's indeed a new low.
David David
David9 May 24, 2021 3:58PM ET
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This seems to me like it is similar to Ms. Meng Wanchou's case....
Chris Cummins
Chris Cummins May 24, 2021 3:58PM ET
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Incorrect, she was apprehended in Canada. Where she traveled on her own accord. Not similar in anyway. Not sure what you are trying to say but it is clearly biased garbage.
David David
David9 May 24, 2021 3:58PM ET
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Chris Cummins She was not in Canada... she was in the transit area which is in international zone...
Chris Cummins
Chris Cummins May 24, 2021 3:58PM ET
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David David  She was detained for questioning and then held under a valid warrant from the US. I really do not see how these are similar in any way.
Silence Dogood
Silence Dogood May 24, 2021 3:58PM ET
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You're a nut. Meng is a criminal. This guy is a political opponent.. BIIIIIG DIFFERENCE.
Clinton Powell
Clinton Powell May 24, 2021 3:47PM ET
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Meanwhile back at the FAKE armed “Insurrection”
Chris Cummins
Chris Cummins May 24, 2021 3:47PM ET
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Keep the Orange glow burning!!!! Hate and fear and some Jesus thrown in!
Millennial Dip Buyer
Millennial Dip Buyer May 24, 2021 3:47PM ET
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Chris Cummins Pretty sure both sides are filled with hate, fear and a bit of Jesus.  Keep polarizing yourself on social media though and alienating yourself from your countrymen.  Russia would be proud.
Mox Mox
Mox Mox May 24, 2021 3:28PM ET
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Meanwhile Putin is just laughing out loud
Chris Cummins
Chris Cummins May 24, 2021 3:28PM ET
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At least he lost the US election this time. Score one for the good guys.
Silence Dogood
Silence Dogood May 24, 2021 3:28PM ET
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Chris Cummins  Wrong. He won this one. He's gonna get everything he wants from his buddy Biden.. just watch.
Jason Zou
Jason Zou May 24, 2021 7:01AM ET
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If they engaged in toppling and assassinating Lukashenko, then Lukashenko has right to catch them in whatever ways possible. A fight is a fight, not a ballet.
Benjamin McIntire
Benjamin McIntire May 24, 2021 7:01AM ET
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Are you insane?
Chris Cummins
Chris Cummins May 24, 2021 7:01AM ET
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Benjamin McIntire  I actually agree with him. Anyone caught trying to topple a legit government should be shot. Jan 6th? Everyone who entered the building should be shot.
Pat Mathieu
Pat Mathieu May 24, 2021 5:01AM ET
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They have the right to intercept wanted criminals in their airspace, incl. Soros "journslists", period.
Ad Cline
Ad Cline May 24, 2021 5:01AM ET
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Mathieu ...how's St Petersburg... the wanted criminals are the illegal Belrus government flunkies that Putin supports.
perplexed76 .
perplexed76 . May 24, 2021 3:33AM ET
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la-la-la outrage
Roger Miller
Roger Miller May 23, 2021 3:16PM ET
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I wouldn't hold my breath waiting for western bureaucrats and politicians to do anything, even though this amounted to a state orchestrated hijacking and mass kidnapping.
danny Levine
danny Levine May 23, 2021 3:16PM ET
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Obama sent agents to assassinate Snowden in HK back in the day. no media dared to report it. the establishment is truly without Borders
Benjamin McIntire
Benjamin McIntire May 23, 2021 3:16PM ET
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danny Levine tinfoil is a bit tight today mate its cutting off circulation again
Jean Pierre Maes
Jean Pierre Maes May 23, 2021 1:41PM ET
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One answer : boycott Belarus
Darya Ustsimchuk
Darya Ustsimchuk May 23, 2021 1:41PM ET
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Boycott Lukashenko 😓
danny Levine
danny Levine May 23, 2021 1:41PM ET
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don't boycott their hot girls
Chris Cummins
Chris Cummins May 23, 2021 1:41PM ET
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danny Levine  Let me guess, you are homophobic....and gay.
Millennial Dip Buyer
Millennial Dip Buyer May 23, 2021 1:41PM ET
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Chris Cummins Projecting much?
Ad Cline
Ad Cline May 23, 2021 1:41PM ET
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I hear Putin likes "detaining" 18 year old boys.
 
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