Belarus Sends MiG Fighters To Divert Foreign Airliner, Arrests Anti-Lukashenko Journalist On Board
A bizarre and alarming incident which officials are calling unprecedented unfolded over the skies of Eastern Europe on Sunday. A Ryanair flight which had departed Athens and was en route to Vilnius – the capital of Lithuania – was forced to land in Belarus to allow state intelligence and security services to detain a journalist who’s long been critical of President Alexander Lukashenko.
Bloomberg has identified the detained journalist is Raman Pratasevich, described as “the former editor-in-chief of the most popular Telegram news channel in Belarus” who was “arrested in the Minsk airport after the plane landed, according to the Minsk-based human rights center Viasna, which is not officially registered by the country’s authorities.”
According to reports in media a Belarus journalist, that was onboard the flight, was arrested after the diversion to Minsk. pic.twitter.com/MQyvXsDExM
— Flightradar24 (@flightradar24) May 23, 2021
Neighboring Lithuania had earlier issued Pratasevich asylum after Belarusian authorities had put him on a “terror watch list” related to his journalistic activities, given the 26-year old blogger and activist helped spearhead last year’s anti-Lukashenko demonstrations which at times shut down large parts of central Minsk following the disputed August 2020 election which resulted in prolonging the autocrat’s rule to a sixth term (which will see him into three decades in power).
The journalist has been dubbed an “extremist” for his role in covering and participating in protests which officials also alleged there was a “foreign hand” behind which had covert NATO support. Pratasevich now faces a severe sentence – if he even goes to trial at all, with some supporters going so far as to suggest a possible death penalty case.
Astoundingly, Belarus’ military had scrambled MiG fighter jets in order to divert the plane to Minsk. Bloomberg continues, “The plane, which was flying over Belarus en route to Lithuania, was escorted to Minsk by a MiG-29 fighter jet after a bomb threat, Belarusian state news agency Belta reported, citing the Minsk airport’s press service.”
The regime forced the landing @Ryanair plane in Minsk to arrest journalist and activist Raman Pratasevich. He faces the death penalty in Belarus. We demand immediate release of Raman, @ICAO investigation, and sanctions against Belarus. pic.twitter.com/ondPBd0kU9
— Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya (@Tsihanouskaya) May 23, 2021
The bomb threat, however, is being widely perceived as but a ruse which ensured the plane would be on Belarusian soil in order to facilitate the controversial detention.
Germany’s Deutsche Welle details:
An airport spokesperson told the agency that although authorities did not find any explosive devices on the plane, it was unclear when it would be allowed to take off again.
The opposition Telegram channel Nexta also reported that the plane was searched and that authorities detained the outlet’s former editor, Roman Protasevich.
“The plane was checked, no bomb was found and all passengers were sent for another security search,” said Nexta. “Among them was… Nexta journalist Roman Protasevich. He was detained.”
The episode is quickly gaining international attention and raising alarm in NATO and the European Union, with Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda issuing a statement on Twitter condemning the “unprecedented” and “abhorrent” action of Lukashenko’s government.
President Nauseda also said in a written statement released to international press agencies that: “I call on NATO and EU allies to immediately react to the threat posed to international civil aviation by the Belarus regime.” He added, “The international community must take immediate steps that this does not repeat.”
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
Also interesting will be the added pressure on both Belarus and Lukashenko-ally Putin over the brazen intervention in a foreign airline’s flight path (Ryanair DAC is based in Ireland and did not immediately comment in the hours after the incident), given especially the two leaders are expected to meet again in Sochi this week, Rossiya-1 television reported.
Putin has been widely seen in the West as enabling Lukashenko’s dictatorial rule, with Russian officials also seeing recent protests in the former Soviet satellite state as West-backed ‘color revolution’ activity fueled by external powers designed to expand NATO influence by seeking overthrow of Russia-friendly governments.
Sun, 05/23/2021 – 11:35