A Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius, Lithuania was forced to land in Belarus to allegedly facilitate the arrest of a dissident to President Alexander Lukashenko on Sunday.
Aboard the plane was Roman Protasevich, a 26-year-old journalist who has criticized the Lukashenko presidency.
Athens to Vilnius flight escorted to Minsk
The Belarusian activist who was aboard the flight Sunday is an ex-editor for Nexta, an online network critical of Lukashenko. The online media platform has a large following on Twitter and YouTube and was extremely critical of the 2020 Belarusian elections which many believe were rigged.
Since the elections in August, Protasevich has allegedly been targeted by the Lukashenko regime and has had criminal charges filed against him for being a terrorist. In Belarus, terrorists can face the death penalty.
Nexta has released a statement detailing their understanding of what occurred on the Athens to Vilnius flight.
Nexta claims that Belarus called in a false bomb scare in order to get the Ryanair flight to land in Minsk. When it did land, they allege that passengers onboard were searched and Protasevich was detained. The plane was combed through as well, but no explosives were found.
There are suspicions circulating over the incident, as it seems that according to the airplane’s flight path as shown on the flightradar24 website, the plane was closer to Vilnius than Minsk when it diverted.
Belarus state media have announced that an airplane was diverted due to a bomb scare, but no explosives were found. One of the state-owned news agencies in the country, Belta, reported that Lukashenko had personally given the order for the plane to land in Minsk, and that a MiG-29 fighter jet had been despatched to accompany the Ryanair airplane.
Ryanair have also released a statement detailing was occurred on the fateful flight. They said that crew were “notified by Belarus (Air Traffic Control) of a potential security threat on board and were instructed to divert to the nearest airport, Minsk.
“Ryanair has notified the relevant national and European safety and security agencies and we apologise sincerely to all affected passengers for this regrettable delay which was outside Ryanair’s control,” it highlighted, making no mention of Protasevich.
Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis reacted with outrage to the grounding of the Athens to Vilnius flight. He seemed to agree with Nexta that the act was a deliberate ruse committed by the Belarusian government in order to detain Protasevich.
Mitsotakis’ tweet about the still unfolding situation is shown below.
The forced landing of a commercial plane to detain a journalist is an unprecedented, shocking act. We demand all passengers’ immediate release. Tomorrow’s #EUCO must address the need to step up pressure on Belarus. Enough is enough.
— Prime Minister GR (@PrimeministerGR) May 23, 2021
The Lithuanian president responded in kind, calling Sunday’s events an “abhorrent action” committed by Belarus.
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
Although Belarus is not a European Union member state, the EU’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell has released a statement on the matter. Borreell said Belarus must be held responsible for the safety of all passengers on the aircraft.
This incident could have mammoth implications for Greece, Belarus, and the rest of Europe. There are questions surrounding the relevant international laws and whether Belarusian President Lukashenko has broken them.
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