Georgian Foreign Ministry on Belarus Flight Diversion

Alonzo Simpson
May 25, 2021

The Ryanair plane with registration number SP-RSM, carrying opposition figure Raman Pratasevich which was traveling from Athens to Vilnius and was diverted to Minsk after a bomb threat, lands at the International Airport outside Vilnius, Lithuania, Sunday, May 23, 2021.

The move comes amid an intensifying crackdown following historic demonstrations that gripped the ex-Soviet country after a disputed presidential election a year ago.

Protasevich, 26, worked for an online opposition news service NEXTA, a Telegram channel that broadcast footage of mass protests against Mr Lukashenko a year ago at a time when it was hard for foreign media to do so.

Ryanair Flight 4978 had already begun its descent into the Lithuanian capital when the pilot announced that the plane would be suddenly diverting to Minsk, capital of neighbouring Belarus.

Belarus's top investigative agency said it had opened a criminal case into a false bomb threat.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken called the forced landing and arrest a "shocking act", demanded Protasevich's immediate release and said President Joe Biden's administration was "closely coordinating our response with our partners".

Authorities boarded the plane and arrested Raman Pratasevich, the former editor-in-chief of one the most popular Telegram news channels in Belarus.

Ireland's Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney said the situation was "extremely worrying".

Extremely worrying reports of a Ryanair plane forced to land in Belarus to detain an opposition blogger.

Belarusian authorities said there were 123 passengers on the plane.

"ALL passengers must be able to continue their travel immediately", he said.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen tweeted that "It is utterly unacceptable to force @Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius to land in Minsk".

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The forced landing came before a two-day meeting in Brussels of European Union leaders, who will discuss consequences and possible sanctions, European Union spokesman Barend Leyts said. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said in a Tweet that the incident was serious and risky and required an worldwide investigation.

"I demand to free Roman Protasevich urgently", tweeted Nauseda.

File photo. Minsk airport.

The two bloggers - who live in Poland - were added to the list based on earlier charges of causing mass unrest, an offence that can lead to up to 15 years of imprisonment.

The Belarusian department for organised crime control reported that Protasevich had been detained before deleting the statement from its Telegram channel.

Another exhausted passenger, speaking to reporters without giving her name, said Protasevich looked "super scared".

An adviser to Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya said Pratasevich, 26, had been bundled off the flight in Minsk by police.

The opposition says that Tikhanovskaya, who fled to neighboring Lithuania after the election, was the true victor of last year's presidential vote. If he is accused and convicted of terrorism, he could face the death penalty.

The press service of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko said the president himself ordered that a MiG-29 fighter jet accompany the airliner after he was informed of the bomb threat.

The Ryanair plane had nearly reached the Lithuanian border and was less than 30 minutes away from Vilnius when it turned direction and landed at Minsk under fighter jet escort.

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

There was no immediate comment from Ryanair. They called for a ban on all overflights of Belarus, including to and from the country, and for North Atlantic Treaty Organisation and European Union states to impose sanctions and suspend Belarus' "ability to use Interpol".

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