EU outrage as Belarus diverts flight, arrests opposition activist

Opposition blogger and activist Roman Protasevich, who is accused of participating in an unsanctioned protest at the Kuropaty preserve, waits before the beginning of a court hearing in Minsk, Belarus April 10, 2017. — Reuters pic
Opposition blogger and activist Roman Protasevich, who is accused of participating in an unsanctioned protest at the Kuropaty preserve, waits before the beginning of a court hearing in Minsk, Belarus April 10, 2017. — Reuters pic

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MINSK, May 24 — Belarus forced a Ryanair flight carrying a wanted opposition activist to land in the capital Minsk on Sunday, provoking a furious outcry from European leaders who described it as a “hijacking” and an “act of state terrorism”.

Belarusian state television reported that Roman Protasevich, a 26-year-old opposition blogger exiled in Poland, had been detained in the capital after flight FR4978 was diverted from its Athens-to-Vilnius route, ostensibly over a security scare.

After finally landing in Vilnius several hours after the scheduled time of arrival — without Protasevich — some passengers described seeing the blogger looking nervous as the flight was diverted to Belarus.

“He just turned to people and said he was facing the death penalty,” Monika Simkiene, a 40-year-old Lithuanian, told AFP.

Edvinas Dimsa, 37, said: “He was not screaming, but it was clear that he was very much afraid. It looked like if the window had been open, he would have jumped out of it.”

The European Union is set to discuss toughening its existing sanctions against Belarus — imposed over the crackdown by the regime of President Alexander Lukashenko on opposition protesters — at a pre-planned summit on Monday.

“The outrageous and illegal behaviour of the regime in Belarus will have consequences,” EU chief Ursula von der Leyen tweeted. “Those responsible for the Ryanair hijacking must be sanctioned. Journalist Roman Protasevich must be released immediately.”

Poland’s Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki denounced Belarus’s actions as “an act of state terrorism”, while French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian called for a “strong and united response” from the EU.

Lithuania and Latvia have called for international flights not to use Belarusian airspace.

Minsk’s airport had released a statement earlier saying the plane had to make an emergency landing there at 1215 GMT following a bomb scare.

“The plane was checked, no bomb was found and all passengers were sent for another security search,” said Nexta, a Belarus opposition channel on the Telegram messaging app, which Protasevich previously edited.

Lukashenko’s press service said on its own Telegram channel that the president had given the order to divert the flight and had ordered a Mig-29 fighter jet to accompany the plane. 

The incident comes as Belarus authorities intensify their crackdown on the opposition following historic protests that gripped the ex-Soviet country after last year’s disputed presidential election.

‘Absolutely unacceptable’

European leaders reacted with fury as it emerged that a flight between two EU countries — Greece and Lithuania — had been diverted and an opposition activist among its passengers arrested. 

In Athens, where the flight began, Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis tweeted: “The forced landing of a commercial plane to detain a journalist is an unprecedented, shocking act.”

Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda described Belarus’s actions as “abhorrent” and Lithuanian prosecutors said they had opened a criminal investigation for the hijacking of a plane.

The government in Ireland, where Ryanair is headquartered, described the incident as “absolutely unacceptable”, while Nato called it “dangerous” and demanded an international investigation. 

Since last August’s disputed election, Belarusians have taken to the streets demanding the resignation of Lukashenko, who has ruled for over two decades.

Protasevich and Nexta founder Stepan Putilo, 22, were added to Belarus’s list of “individuals involved in terrorist activity” last year.

The two bloggers — both now based in Poland — were added to the list over charges of causing mass unrest, an offence punishable by up to 15 years in jail.

Belarus had also labelled the Nexta Telegram channels and its logo “extremist” and ordered them blocked.

With close to two million subscribers on Telegram, Nexta Live and its sister channel Nexta are prominent voices of the Belarus opposition and helped mobilise protesters.

“It is absolutely obvious that this is an operation of secret services to capture the plane in order to detain activist and blogger Roman Protasevich,” exiled opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya said on Telegram.  

The opposition says that Tikhanovskaya, who fled to neighbouring Lithuania after the election, was the true winner of last year’s presidential vote. 

KGB involved?

A member of the Nexta team, Tadeusz Giczan, said on Twitter that representatives of the Belarusian security agency had been on the flight with Protasevich.

“Then when the plane had entered Belarus airspace, the KGB officers initiated a fight with the Ryanair crew insisting there’s an IED onboard,” he said.

A spokeswoman for state company Lithuanian Airports, Lina Beisine, told AFP that Minsk airport had said the flight was redirected “due to a conflict between a member of the crew and the passengers”. 

Ryanair said the flight’s crew had been notified by Belarus air traffic control of “a potential security threat on board” and were instructed to divert to Minsk, the “nearest” airport.

The EU and the United States have sanctioned Lukashenko and dozens of officials and businessmen tied to his regime with asset freezes and visa bans.

The opposition protests in Belarus, which left at least four people dead, have now subsided, but journalists and activists continue to receive prison sentences in the aftermath. — AFP

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