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There was outrage across Europe on Sunday to what was called an “unprecedented act of state terrorism” after authorities in Belarus forced a Ryanair flight from Greece to Lithuania to be diverted to Minsk, where they arrested a government-critical activist.
Exiled Belarus opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya said on Twitter that the activist, Roman Protasevich, faces the death penalty and demanded 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 did not mention an arrest. It did, however, report that the order for the plane to land was given by Lukashenko.
While boarding the plane in Athens, Protasevich noticed he was being photographed by “dodgy-looking people,” wrote Tadeusz Giczan, editor-in-chief of Protasevich’s employer Nexta, a news channel on the social media app Telegram that late last year was ruled “extremist” by a Belarusian court.
Giczan said those taking the photographs were agents from Belarus’ intelligence agency and that when the plane entered Belarusian airspace, the security operatives “initiated a fight with the Ryanair crew,” insisted there was an explosive device on board and forced the crew to send a distress signal.
Giczan added that a fighter jet then escorted the plane to Minsk airport, where security services boarded the plane and arrested Protasevich — who left the country in 2019 to work for Nexta. The Belarus Defense Ministry said the decision to send the jet was taken “after the commander of this civilian vessel made a decision to land at an alternate airfield.”
In a statement, Ryanair said the flight crew were notified by air traffic control in Belarus “of a potential security threat on board and were instructed to divert to the nearest airport, Minsk.”
“Nothing untoward was found and authorities cleared the aircraft to depart together with passengers and crew after approx. 5hrs on the ground.”
There was swift condemnation of the Belarusian action.
Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said on Twitter that he had asked for a meeting of EU leaders taking place on Monday and Tuesday to discuss sanctions against Belarus. The bloc has already brought three sets of sanctions in the wake of the August 2020 presidential election, which was officially won by Lukashenko with 80 percent of the vote — an outcome widely condemned as fraudulent and which sparked huge protests across Belarus that led to a fierce crackdown by forces loyal to Lukashenko, with thousands arrested and at least four killed.
Morawiecki said the “hijacking of a civilian plane is 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 called on the authorities in Minsk to “immediately release the flight and all its passengers.”
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said forcing the flight to Minsk was “utterly unacceptable” and added that “any violation of international air transport rules must bear consequences.”
Lithuanian President Gitanas Nausėda described it as an “unprecedented event” and said the Belarusian “regime is behind the abhorrent action.” Lithuanian Prime Minister Ingrida Šimonytė said passengers and crew had been “put in danger,” adding: “We demand that the plane and passengers be allowed to fly to Vilnius immediately!”
Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias said he had spoken with his Lithuanian counterpart Gabrielius Landsbergis.
“They both stressed the need for all passengers to be immediately released and said they would continue to coordinate their efforts within the EU,” according to a tweet by the Greek Foreign Ministry.
The same ministry later released a statement calling the forced landing “state hijacking” that “has put in danger the lives of all the passengers on board.”
“The forced landing of a commercial plane to detain a journalist is an unprecedented, shocking act,” Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis posted on Twitter. “We demand all passengers’ immediate release. Tomorrow’s EUCO must address the need to step up pressure on Belarus. Enough is enough.”
Latvian PM Krišjānis Kariņš called for an “independent international investigation” and the release of Protasevich.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said in a statement: “The diversion by Belarusian authorities of a Ryanair flight is unacceptable. A firm and united response by Europeans is indispensable. All passengers of this flight, including potential Belarusian opposition figures, have to be allowed to leave Belarus without delay.”
German government official Miguel Berger tweeted “we need an immediate explanation” from the government of Belarus.
Former European Council President 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 demands an immediate and tough reaction of all European governments and institutions.”
David M. Herszenhorn, Nektaria Stamouli and Rym Momtaz contributed to this article.