Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko scrambled a fighter jet to force a Ryanair flight travelling from Greece to Lithuania to land in Minsk so he could arrest a dissident journalist who is now facing the death penalty following an ‘outlandish’ bomb scare.
Ryanair flight FR4978, carrying 171 passengers, had been flying from Athens to Vilnius when its crew was warned by Belarusian air traffic control that there had been a report of a bomb on board.
The pilot of the Soviet-era MiG-29 ordered to intercept the airliner signalled that it should make an emergency landing in Minsk Airport. When it did, state security officers arrested Roman Protasevich, a vocal critic of Lukashenko who founded news outlet Nexta.
Protasevich, 26, is wanted in Belarus on charges of extremism and of organising mass riots and inciting social hatred after he broadcast footage of the huge anti-regime protests via the Telegram messenger app last year – allegations which he denies. If convicted, the blogger could be sentenced to death.
Britain, the US, Ireland, Germany, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Poland and the Czech Republic denounced the ‘state-sponsored terror act’, and called for the toughening of existing sanctions against the Lukashenko regime as well as the release of Protasevich.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken called the incident ‘shocking’ and accused Lukashenko’s regime of endangering the lives of those aboard the aircraft, some of them Americans. He also called for the release of Pratasevich and for the Council of the International Civil Aviation Organization to review the incident.
US Ambassador Julie Fisher called the hijacking ‘dangerous and abhorrent’, and added that Belarus had ‘showed again its contempt for international community and its citizens’.
Brussels is set to discuss strengthening sanctions against Belarus on Monday.