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Tuesday 28 November 2023 Dublin: 1°C
PA Roman Protasevich, who had fled Belarus for Poland, faces charges that could carry a prison sentence of up to 15 years.

Diverted Ryanair flight leaves Belarus for Lithuania after exiled activist detained

Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney said the reports of the activist’s detention were “extremely worrying”.

LAST UPDATE | May 23rd 2021, 6:52 PM

THE RYANAIR FLIGHT that was diverted to Minsk today by Belarus authorities has been allowed to continue towards Lithuania, the European Commission said.

“Great news for everyone, especially the families and friends of people onboard,” said transport commissioner Adina Valean.

The commissioner did not say whether all of those who had been on board the flight had been allowed to depart when it was allowed to leave.

Belarusian opposition activist Roman Protasevich was detained by Belarus authorities when the flight, originally from Athens to Vilnius, was diverted to Minsk.

A statement from Minsk airport said the aircraft had had to make an emergency landing following a bomb scare.

European leaders reacted with fury, demanding Belarus allow all the passengers to leave.

“The Ryanair flight took off just now from Minsk bound for Vilnius,” Valean wrote. 

Protasevich was aboard a Ryanair flight from Athens to the Lithuanian capital Vilnius, which made an emergency landing following a bomb scare, TASS news agency reported citing the press service of Minsk airport.

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

“The plane was checked, no bomb was found and all passengers were sent for another security search,” Nexta said. “Among them was… Nexta journalist Roman Protasevich. He was detained.”

Nexta Live and its sister channel Nexta — with close to 2 million subscribers on the Telegram messenger — are prominent voices of the Belarus opposition and helped mobilise protesters. 

It added that Protasevich said he was followed before boarding the flight.

The Belarusian Interior Ministry initially confirmed the detention on Telegram, but the post was later deleted.

Europe responds

Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney has said the reports are “extremely worrying” and that Ireland is in contact with Ryanair and the EU.

Tweet by @Simon Coveney Simon Coveney / Twitter Simon Coveney / Twitter / Twitter

Top European Union officials warned Belarus that it would be held responsible for the fate of the flight diverted to Minsk and demanded all passengers be released.

“We hold the government of Belarus responsible for the security of all passengers and the aircraft,” EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell tweeted.

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

President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen echoed this call.

“ALL passengers must be able to continue their travel to Vilnius immediately and their safety ensured,” she said, in a separate tweet.

She warned: “Any violation of international air transport rules must bear consequences.”

The president of the European Council Charles Michel, who will host a summit of the 27 EU national leaders on Monday, also spoke out.

“An ICAO investigation of the incident will be essential,” he declared, referring to the International Civil Aviation Organisation, a UN agency.

Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda on Twitter called the incident an “unprecedented event” and said that the Belarus “regime is behind the abhorrent action”.

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki branded the arrest as an “act of state terrorism”.

“I condemn in the strongest terms the detention of Roman Protasevich by Belarusian authorities, after a Ryanair passenger aircraft was hijacked. This is a reprehensible act of state terrorism,” he said.

Similar statements have also been made by French and German officials.

shutterstock_612461024 Shutterstock / Fisher_Y File photo. Minsk airport. Shutterstock / Fisher_Y / Fisher_Y

Roman Protasevich

Last year, 26-year old Protasevich and Nexta 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, an offence that can lead to up to 15 years of imprisonment.

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

The Telegram channel of Lukashenko’s press service said the president gave the order to turn the flight around. It added that he also ordered a Mig-29 fighter jet to accompany the aircraft.

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

Both Tikhanovskaya and Nexta say that Protasevich could face the death penalty in Belarus.

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 onboard,” he said.

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

There was no immediate reaction from Ryanair.

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

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

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