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On Sunday there was outrage across Europe over a so-called “unprecedented act of state terrorism” after Belarusian authorities forced a Ryanair flight from Greece to Lithuania to be diverted to Minsk, where they arrested an activist critical of the government.
Exiled Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya said on Twitter that activist Roman Protasevich faces the death penalty and has called for his immediate release, as well as a United Nations investigation and sanctions against the government of Alexander Lukashenko.
The official Belta news agency reported that a plane had been diverted but made no mention of the arrest. However, it was reported that the order to land the plane was given by Lukashenko.
When Protasevich got on the plane in Athens, he noticed that he was being photographed by “shady-looking people”. wrote Tadeusz Giczan, editor-in-chief of Protasevich’s employer Nexta, a news channel on the social media app Telegram, which was classified as “extremist” by a Belarusian court late last year.
Giczan said the photos were agents of Belarusian intelligence, and when the plane entered Belarusian airspace, security forces “started a fight with the Ryanair crew,” insisted that an explosive device was on board and forced the crew to send a distress signal.
Giczan added that a fighter plane then escorted the plane to Minsk Airport, where security services boarded the plane and arrested Protasevich, who was leaving the country in 2019 to work for Nexta. The Belarusian Defense Ministry said the decision to send the jet was made “after the commander of this civilian ship decided to land at an alternative airfield”.
In a statement, Ryanair said the flight crew had been “informed of a potential security threat on board by air traffic control in Belarus and instructed to reroute to the nearest airport, Minsk.”
“Nothing unusual was found and the authorities cleared the plane to be on the ground after about 5 hours. “
The Belarusian action was quickly condemned.
The Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said on twitter He asked for a meeting of EU heads of state and government on Monday and Tuesday to discuss the sanctions against Belarus. After the presidential elections in August 2020, which Lukashenko officially won with 80 percent of the vote, the bloc has already imposed three sanctions – a result that has been widely condemned as fraudulent and sparked large protests across Belarus that led to violent crackdown on troops who are loyal to Lukashenko. Thousands were arrested and at least four killed.
Morawiecki said the hijacking of a civil aircraft was an unprecedented act of state terrorism. It cannot go unpunished. “
European Council President Charles Michel, who will chair the EU summit, said he was “very concerned” about the situation and urged the Minsk authorities to “unblock the flight and all its passengers immediately”.
President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen said Forcing the flight to Minsk was “completely unacceptable”, adding that “any violation of international air traffic rules must have consequences.”
Lithuanian President Gitanas Nausėda described it as an “unprecedented event” and said the Belarusian “regime is behind the heinous action.” Lithuanian Prime Minister Ingrida Šimonytė said passengers and crew were “put in danger” and added: “We demand that the plane and passengers be allowed to fly to Vilnius immediately!”
Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias said he had spoken to his Lithuanian counterpart Gabrielius Landsbergis.
“Both emphasized the need to release all passengers immediately and said they would continue to coordinate their efforts within the EU,” said a tweet from the Greek Foreign Ministry.
The same ministry later issued a statement calling the emergency landing a “state hijack” which “put the lives of all passengers on board at risk”.
“The forced landing of an airliner to detain a journalist is an unprecedented, shocking act,” wrote Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis on Twitter. “We demand the immediate release of all passengers. Tomorrow’s EUCO must address the need to increase pressure on Belarus. Enough is enough.”
Latvian PM Krišjānis Kariņš demanded an “independent international investigation” and the release of Protasevich.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said in a statement: “The diversion of a Ryanair flight by the Belarusian authorities is unacceptable. A firm and consistent response from Europeans is essential. All passengers on this flight, including potential Belarusian opponents, must be allowed to leave Belarus immediately. “
Federal Government Official Miguel Berger tweeted “We need an immediate statement” from the Belarusian government.
Former President of the European Council Donald Tusk said on Twitter that Lukashenko “has become a threat not only to his own citizens but also to international security. His act of state terrorism requires an immediate and tough reaction from all European governments and institutions. “
David M. Herszenhorn, Nektaria Stamouli and Rym Momtaz contributed to this article.