A founder of a messaging app channel that has been a key information conduit for opponents of Belarus’s authoritarian president has been arrested after a passenger plane on which he was travelling was “forcibly” diverted to the capital, Minsk, following an alleged bomb threat.
The presidential press service said President Alexander Lukashenko personally ordered a MiG-29 fighter jet accompany the Ryanair plane, which was en route from Athens to Vilnius – to the Minsk airport.
The Belarusian Interior Ministry said Roman Protasevich was arrested at the airport. Protasevich, 26, 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 organise large protests against Lukashenko.
Protasevich, who had fled the country for Poland, faces charges that could carry a prison sentence of up to 15 years.
The diversion and Protasevich’s arrest drew immediate international condemnation, calls for the activist’s release, sanctions and an investigation by the United Nations’ civil aviation body.
The United States “strongly condemns the forced diversion of a flight between two EU member states and the subsequent removal and arrest of journalist Roman Protasevich in Minsk. We demand his immediate release,” US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement.
“This shocking act perpetrated by the Lukashenka regime endangered the lives of more than 120 passengers, including US citizens.
“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,” he said.
Lukashenko’s office in Belarus said the bomb threat was received while the aircraft was over Belarusian territory; officials later said no explosives were found on board.
Ryanair said the plane’s crew were notified by Belarus of a potential security threat on board and were instructed to divert to the nearest airport, which was in Minsk. The plane landed safely, passengers disembarked and security checks were made by local authorities, it said.
When a dictator is emboldened… he hijacks an international flight.
— John Scott-Railton (@jsrailton) May 23, 2021
After seven hours on the ground in Belarus, the flight was allowed to continue on its journey, landing in Vilnius at 18:25 GMT.
“Ryanair has notified the relevant national and European safety and security agencies and we apologise sincerely to all affected passengers for this regrettable delay, which was outside Ryanair’s control,” the company said in a statement.
Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda said the plane had been “forcibly” diverted and demanded that Belarus release Protasevich.
“Unprecedented event! A civilian passenger plane flying to Vilnius was forcibly landed in #Minsk,” Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda said on Twitter.
“Belarusian political activist founder of @NEXTA_EN was on the plane. He is arrested. Regime is behind the abhorrent action. I demand to free Roman Protasevic urgently!”, Nauseda added, using an alternative spelling of his name.
Unprecedented event! A civilian passenger plane flying to Vilnius was forcibly landed in #Minsk. Belarusian political activist founder of @NEXTA_EN was on the plane. He is arrested. 🇧🇾 regime is behind the abhorrent action. I demand to free Roman Protasevič urgently!
— Gitanas Nausėda (@GitanasNauseda) May 23, 2021
He also urged NATO and the European Union to “immediately react to the threat posed by the Belarusian regime to international civil aviation” in a separate statement issued by his office.
“I will talk about it at the EU summit in Brussels tomorrow,” Nauseda said.
The European Union will discuss possible sanctions over the major diplomatic incident at a summit on Monday and Tuesday, a spokesman said.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said the forced landing of a Ryanair flight in Minsk was a “serious and dangerous incident”, saying it required an international investigation.
Closely monitoring forcible landing in #Belarus of flight to Vilnius reported detention of opposition figure Roman Protasevich. This is a serious dangerous incident which requires international investigation. Belarus must ensure safe return of crew all passengers.
— Jens Stoltenberg (@jensstoltenberg) May 23, 2021
Exiled opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya called on the International Civil Aviation Organization to begin an investigation.
“It is absolutely obvious that this is an operation by the special services to hijack an aircraft in order to detain activist and blogger Roman Protasevich,” she said in a statement. “Not a single person who flies over Belarus can be sure of his safety.”
A member of the Nexta team, Tadeusz Giczan, said on Twitter that representatives of the Belarusian security agency were 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 on board,” he said.
Last year, Protasevich and Nexta co-founder Stepan Putilo, 22, were added to Belarus’s list of “individuals involved in terrorist activity”.
The two bloggers – who live in Poland – were added to the list based on earlier charges of causing mass unrest.
They are also facing charges of inciting social hatred against government and law enforcement officials, and have been added to international wanted lists in Belarus and in Russia, an ally of President Lukashenko.
Nexta Live and its sister channel Nexta – with close to two million subscribers on the Telegram messenger – are prominent voices of the Belarus opposition and have helped mobilise protesters.
In October, Belarus labelled the Nexta Telegram channel and its logo “extremist” and ordered it blocked. Reposting information from the channels is punishable by a fine.
Lithuania granted Protasevich refugee status in the wake of a bloody crackdown in Belarus after a disputed election last August. Tikhanovskaya also fled to the Baltic EU nation and is still there.
Belarus saw unprecedented mass protests after Lukashenko claimed a sixth term in August last year in a vote that the opposition and Western diplomats said was rigged.
Police cracked down on the protests, detaining some 30,000 people and beating many of them.
Although protests died down during the winter, Belarus has continued to take action against the opposition and independent news media. Last week, 11 staff members of the TUT.by news website were detained by police.
The EU and the United States have sanctioned Lukashenko and dozens of officials and businessmen tied to his government with asset freezes and visa bans.