Belarus president Alexander Lukashenko ordered a fighter jet to escort a commercial Ryanair flight to Minsk, where a dissident journalist on board was detained upon landing.
The flight took off from Athens, Greece and was initially scheduled to land in Vilnius, Lithuania. However, Ryanair said that the flight crew was informed of a potential threat of explosives on board while flying in Belarusian airspace, and the plane was diverted to Minsk.
Lukashenko gave an “unequivocal order” to “make the plane do a U-turn and land,” according to a press release from his office translated by the New York Times. Belarus’s Investigative Committee, the country’s top investigative body, said it had opened a probe into a false bomb threat after no explosives were found on the plane.
Belarusian authorities detained journalist Roman Protasevich while the plane was grounded in Minsk. After Lukashenko’s government shut down many media outlets in 2020 in the wake of widespread protests against his rule, Protasevich opened the NEXTA telegram channel, which became one of the most popular sources of information for dissidents. The channel has around 1.5 million subscribers.
Before takeoff, Protasevich said he was being followed and photographed by a bald man in the Athens airport, according to messages sent in another telegram channel.
Protasevich told passengers that “he was facing the death penalty” after the flight was diverted, passenger Monika Simkiene told Agence France-Presse.
“He was not screaming, but it was clear that he was very much afraid,” fellow passenger Edvinas Dimsa told A.F.P. “It looked like if the window had been open, he would have jumped out of it.”
European Commission head Ursula von der Leyen called Protasevich’s detention the “Ryanair hijacking,” and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken condemned the incident in a statement on Sunday.
“This shocking act perpetrated by the Lukashenko regime endangered the lives of more than 120 passengers, including U.S. citizens,” Mr. Blinken said. “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.”
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