Belarus opposition leader detained after 'govt hijacking' of flight; US calls for his immediate release

In a bizarre turn of events, a Ryanair flight from Greece to Lithuania was on Sunday diverted and made to land in Belarus over a bomb threat. And while no bomb was found, one of the passengers was deplaned and arrested by the Belarusian authorities. Eventually, the plane was cleared for take-off from Minsk and subsequently arrived in Vilnius.

To give a bit of context, journalist Raman Pratasevich had been a vocal critic of the Alexander Lukashenko-led government in Belarus and had previously fled the country for Poland. He is a co-founder of the Telegram messaging app's Nexta channel, which Belarus last year declared as extremist after it was used to help organize major protests against Lukashenko. Now, he faces up to 15 years in prison.

"Unprecedented event! A civilian passenger plane flying to Vilnius was forcibly landed in Minsk. Belarusian political activist and founder of NEXTA was on the plane. He is arrested. Flag of Belarus regime is behind the abhorrent action. I demand to free Roman Protasevič urgently!" Nauseda tweeted. In another post on Facebook, he called for NATO and EU allies to respond to the "threat of the Belarusian regime to international civil aviation" and said that he would be bringing this up at the European Council of Leaders meeting.

Several nations including the chair the chairs of the Parliament foreign affairs committees of Ireland, UK, US, Poland, Germany, Czechia, Latvia and Lithuania have also reportedly issued a joint call to suspend all flights to, from, and over Belarus. They have also sought sanctions against the Lukashenko government.

The flight route of the detained plane indicates that the plane was about 10 kilometers (six) miles from the Lithuanian border when it changed course. It then made a lengthy detour, travelling away from it's original trajectory by more than 70 kilometers to land at Minsk. There it remained for over five hours.

Deputy air force commander Andrei Gurtsevich said the plane's crew made the decision to land in Minsk, but Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda claimed the plane was forced to land there. The presidential press service said President Alexander Lukashenko personally ordered that a MiG-29 fighter jet accompany the Ryanair plane to the airport in the capital Minsk.

Image tweeted by @flightradar24
Image tweeted by @flightradar24

Exiled opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya who ran against Lukashenko in the 2020 Presidential polls called on the International Civil Aviation Organization to begin an investigation. In a statement she dubbed this an "operation by the special services to hijack an aircraft" in order to detain the activist.

Condemning the Lukashenko regime's "ongoing harassment and arbitrary detention of journalists", the US State Secretary batted for the rights of the Belarusian people. "Initial reports suggesting the involvement of the Belarusian security services and the use of Belarusian military aircraft to escort the plane are deeply concerning and require full investigation," Blinken said

EU leaders have condemned the diversion of an Athens-Vilnius Ryanair flight to Minsk, the capital of Belarus, and warned possible sanctions against Belarus in the EU summit scheduled on Monday.

"I condemn in the strongest possible terms the forced landing of a Ryanair flight in Minsk, Belarus, on 23 May 2021," said European Council President Charles Michel in a communique.

Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission has called for sanctions against those who are found responsible for the Ryanair plane emergency landing in Minsk and reiterated the EU position regarding the immediate release of Protasevich.

(With inputs from agencies)

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