Belarusian opposition blogger Protasevich detained in Minsk where his Ryanair flight made emergency landing
MINSK. May 24 (Interfax) – Belarusian opposition blogger Roman Protasevich was detained on Sunday by the Belarusian authorities in Minsk, where the Ryanair flight on which he was traveling from Athens to Vilnius made an emergency landing, the Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ) said.
"Roman Protasevich has been detained. He was traveling from Athens to Vilnius on board a Ryanair flight. The plane made an emergency landing at the Minsk airport," BAJ said on Telegram on Sunday.
A Ryanair plane traveling from Athens to Vilnius made an emergency landing at the Minsk airport after a bomb alert in the afternoon of May 23. The plane was approaching the Lithuanian border, but was diverted to Minsk. Protasevich, former editor-in-chief of the NEXTA and editor of the Belarus of the Brain Telegram channels, was on board this plane. He was detained after the plane landed.
This was a special operation to detain Protasevich, leader of the Belarusian opposition Svetlana Tikhanovskaya said.
Belarus forced the plane to change its course by scrambling a MiG-29 fighter jet, Tikhanovskaya's advisor Franak Viacorka told BNS.
"Belarusian journalist Roman Protasevich flew from Athens to Vilnius on the same flight that Tikhanovskaya herself took a week ago," he said.
If Tikhanovskaya had also been on the plane on Sunday, she would also have been detained, Viacorka said.
"They scrambled a MiG-29 military fighter jet. The Belarusian air traffic controller told the plane to change direction and fly to the Minsk airport, allegedly because of a bomb threat. In Minsk, they arranged a second screening of passengers, checked the plane, and, when passengers got off the plane, Protasevich was detained," he said.
Scrambling a military fighter jet to intercept a passenger plane violated all possible rules of international civil aviation, Viacorka said.
The Belarusian media reported that the decision to land the Ryanair plane in Minsk was made personally by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko.
According to the Pool of the First Telegram channel, which is believed to be close to Alexander Lukashenko, the MiG-29 was waiting at the airport until necessary inspections and checks were finished to accompany the airliner to the border with Lithuania.
Six people, including four Russian citizens, did not leave Minsk for Vilnius on the Ryanair plane which earlier made an emergency landing in the Belarusian capital, said Pavel Latushko, member of the presidium of the Belarusian oppositional Coordination Council and former culture minister.
"According to the information available to the People's Anti-Crisis Administration, two Belarusian citizens and four Russian citizens could not fly to Vilnius from Minsk," Latushko said in a statement published on his Telegram channel.
Latushko said he had information that the Ryanair crew was threatened with the use of weapons.
"According to the information available to the People's Anti-Crisis Administration, the Belarusian civil aviation authorities, in particular, the air traffic controllers of the Minsk-2 airport threatened to shoot down a civil Ryanair aircraft with passengers on board. For these purposes, a Belarusian MiG-29 military fighter jet was scrambled," Latushko said.
Roman Protasevich, former chief editor of NEXTA and editor of Belarus of the Brain, Telegram channels that are both recognized as extremist in Belarus, was placed on the international wanted list. In November 2020, the Belarusian Prosecutor General's Office requested the Polish Justice Ministry to put Protasevich in custody and extradite him so that he could be prosecuted in a mass riots case in Belarus.
Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda has demanded the release of Roman Protasevich and called on the international community to take action.
"I demand that the Belarusian regime immediately release the detained person and allow him to continue his trip to Vilnius. I appeal to NATO and EU allies to respond urgently to the threat of the Belarusian regime to international civil aviation," Nauseda said on Facebook on Sunday.
"The international community needs to take action urgently so that such incidents can't happen again. I will be talking about this tomorrow at the European Council of Leaders in Brussels," the Lithuanian president said.
The Lithuanian Foreign Ministry has summoned the Belarusian charge d'affaires ad interim to Lithuania.
"We demanded from him an immediate release of all passengers and crew of the plane," the Lithuanian Foreign Ministry said in a statement released on Sunday.
Ukraine demands the immediate release of Belarusian journalist Roman Protasevich, and considers his detention in Minsk an attack on freedom of speech by the Belarusian authorities, said Oleh Nikolenko, spokesman for the Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
"More worrying news coming from Belarus as we learned Belarusian journalist Roman Protasevich has been detained in Minsk. This is yet another attack on freedom of expression by Belarusian authorities. We demand his immediate release. While in detention, his rights must be upheld," Nikolenko wrote on Twitter on Sunday evening.
The United States demands the release of former editor-in-chief of the Nexta online outlet Roman Protasevich, who was detained on Sunday after the forced landing of a Ryanair flight in Minsk, the U.S. Department of State said in a statement.
"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," the statement quoted U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken as saying.
"This shocking act perpetrated by the Lukashenko regime endangered the lives of more than 120 passengers, including U.S. citizens," he said.
"Independent media are an essential pillar supporting the rule of law and a vital component of a democratic society," Blinken said.
The U.S. authorities are holding consultations with partners in order to react to the Ryanair flight incident in Belarus, Blinken said.
"We are closely coordinating our response with our partners, including the EU and Lithuanian and Greek officials," he said.
He called for investigating the incident.
"Given indications the forced landing was based on false pretenses, we support the earliest possible meeting of the Council of the International Civil Aviation Organization to review these events," Blinken said.
"The United States once again condemns the [...] ongoing harassment and arbitrary detention of journalists," he said.
The European External Action Service (EEAS) said the forced landing of the Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius in Minsk was inadmissible.
"On May 23, the Belarusian authorities, in an inadmissible step, forced a civilian plane to perform an emergency landing in Minsk. The plane, owned by an EU company, flying between two EU capitals and carrying more than 100 passengers, was forced to land by a Belarusian military aircraft," the EEAS said in a statement on Monday.
"One of the flight passengers, Mr. Roman Protasevich, an independent journalist from Belarus, was retained by the Belarusian authorities and prevented from boarding the plane at the Minsk airport to its original destination. This is yet another blatant attempt by the Belarusian authorities to silence all opposition voices," it said.
The EEAS called for "the immediate release of Mr. Protasevich."
"In carrying out this coercive act, the Belarusian authorities have jeopardized the safety of passengers and crew. An international investigation into this incident must be carried out to ascertain any breach of international aviation rules," the EEAS said.
For more than six months, Belarus saw continuous protests against the official results of the presidential election that took place on August 9, 2020. The authorities declared incumbent President Alexander Lukashenko the winner. Lukashenko has been in office since 1994. The opposition rejected the results of the presidential election, saying that the election was rigged. Protesters demanded Lukashenko's resignation, the release of political prisoners, and a new election. The protests almost stopped after being fiercely dispersed by Belarusian law enforcement forces; they are now sporadic and only happen locally.