Belarus forces plane to land – bloggers arrested | Free press

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Minsk / Vilnius (dpa) – Authorities in the authoritarian Republic of Belarus have diverted a plane en route from Athens to Vilnius (Lithuania) and forced it to land in the capital, Minsk.

On board the passenger plane of the airline Ryanair, among the more than 100 passengers was also the blogger Roman Protassewitsch, who was internationally sought after by the Belarusian ruler Alexander Lukashenko. According to the Wesna human rights center, he was arrested at the airport on Sunday. The incident caused widespread horror in the EU.

Oppositionists spoke of unprecedented damage to international airspace. Government-critical news channel Nexta (pronounced Nechta) also confirmed the arrest of its co-founder and former editor, who had been on board a Ryanair plane. Protassevich had been followed in Athens before boarding the plane, he said. Lukashenko “hijacked” an airplane in violation of all laws, the channel criticized. Nexta asked Ryanair to investigate the incident.

The airline confirmed that one of its planes had been diverted to Minsk on its way from Athens to the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius. The flight crew had been notified by the Belarusian side of a possible security threat on board and ordered to fly to the nearest airport in Minsk, the airline said at the request of the German news agency.

The plane landed safely and passengers disembarked while local authorities carried out security checks. Nothing unusual was found. Authorities then approved that the plane could take off after an estimated five hours on the ground along with passengers and crew. Departure must take place on Sunday evening. Ryanair has not provided information about the arrest of the opposition activist.

Belarusian authorities classify Nexta as extremist. Last year, the station repeatedly called for massive protests against Lukashenko after the controversial presidential election. The blogger Protassewitsch is one of many opposition activists who are wanted internationally and on whom Lukashenko personally declared war.

Civil rights activist Svetlana Tichanowskaja, who also lives in exile in the EU, condemned the “secret service operation”. Her colleagues said the action could have been aimed at her as well; Tichanowskaja had already taken the route from Athens to Vilnius. There is also advertised for a manhunt. Many people in Belarus consider her the winner of the presidential election on August 9, 2020.

The KGB secret service had the journalist put Protassevich on a list of people accused of participating in terrorist attacks, as the portal does. By reporting on Telegram. According to the state agency Belta, Lukashenko himself gave the order to land in Minsk after the alarm about an explosive on board the plane.

The airport confirmed that a MiG-29 fighter jet had also climbed to accompany the Ryanair plane. Airport spokespersons reported to state media that the pilots on board the machine had requested permission to land. Later, the information about the alleged bomb turned out to be false alarms.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Berlin demanded clarification about the unplanned landing of a passenger plane in Minsk. Secretary of State Miguel Berger wrote on Twitter that an immediate statement from the Belarusian government was needed to divert an intra-EU Ryanair flight to Minsk and the alleged arrest of a journalist.

EU leaders condemned the diversion of the machine. “It is absolutely unacceptable to force the Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius to land in Minsk,” Ursula von der Leyen, head of the European Commission, wrote on Twitter. Violations of international air traffic rules must have consequences. Charles Michel, the leader of the EU Council, wrote that investigations should be conducted by the International Civil Aviation Organization.

He left open whether and in what form the subject could be discussed at the special EU summit on Monday evening. Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki had recently tweeted that he had asked Michel to discuss immediate sanctions against Lukashenko’s “regime” at the summit. Numerous sanctions are already in place. The EU does not recognize Lukashenko as president. Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis also called on Twitter that the incident would be a topic at the EU special summit. The Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs spoke of “state air piracy”.

The Pole Morawiecki wrote that the “hijacking of a civilian plane” was an “unprecedented act of state terrorism” and could not go unpunished. Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda called for the immediate release of the activist Protassevich. “This is an unprecedented incident (…) The Belarusian regime is behind this horrific action,” he wrote on Twitter.