The founder of an online program that has become a major tool for opponents of Belarus’s dictatorial regime has been arrested after a plane crashed into the Minsk capital, due to a bomb blast.
Presidential reporters said President Alexander Lukashenko ordered the MiG-29 fighter jet to take the Ryanair flight – which flew Sunday from Athens, Greece, to Vilnius, Lithuania – to Minsk airport.
Belarus’s interior minister says Raman Pratasevich has been arrested at the airport. Pratasevich is one of the founders of the Nexta Telegram program, which Belarus announced last year as “extremist” used to support major protests against Lukashenko.
Pratasevich, who fled the country to Poland, is facing a charge of up to 15 years in prison.
Journalists said the bomb threat was received when the plane passed through Belarus territory; Officials later said no explosives had been found.
Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda called on Belarus to release Protasevich.
“An unprecedented event! A plane carrying civilians flying to Vilnius was forced to land # #Minsk, “Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda said on Twitter.
“The Belarusian politician & founder @NEXTA_EN was on the plane. He was arrested. The authorities are responsible for the atrocities. I want to release Roman Protasevic immediately!”, Nauseda added.
An unprecedented event! A common passenger plane to Vilnius was forced #Minsk. Belarusian politician & founder of @KamemeTvKenya was on a plane. Arrested. The government has done this. I want to release Roman Protasevič immediately!
– Gitanas Nausida (@GitanasNauseda) May 23, 2021
He also urged NATO and the European Union to “urgently respond to the threat posed by the Belarusian government on international travel” in a statement issued by his office.
“I will discuss them at the EU summit in Brussels tomorrow,” Nauseda said.
The European Union (EU) said on Sunday that all Ryanair passengers should be allowed to resume their flights immediately.
“All passengers must continue their journey to Vilnius immediately and their safety is guaranteed,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said on Twitter.
“Any violation of international aviation law must have consequences,” he added
Exiled opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya called on the International Civil Aviation Organization to launch an investigation.
“It will be clear that this is a special operation that is being carried out to seize the aircraft to keep the host and blogger Raman Pratasevich,” he said in a statement. “No one flying in Belarus can guarantee his safety.”
Ryanair said the pilots were informed by Belarus of the potential danger and advised to go to the nearest airport, Minsk.
The plane arrived safely, the passengers were dropped off and security checks by government officials, he said.
One of the Nexta factions, Tadeusz Giczan, said on Twitter that Belarusian security representatives were working with Protasevich.
“After the plane crashed in Belarus, KGB police started a fight with the Ryanair group insisting there was an IED,” he said.
Last year, 26-year-old Protasevich and Nexta co-founder Stepan Putilo, 22, were added to the list of “terrorist accomplices” in Belarus.
Two bloggers – based in Poland – were added to the list based on the original charges of rioting, which could land them in prison for 15 years.
He is also accused of inciting animosity between the government and law enforcement officials, and has been added to the wanted list in Belarus and Russia, a close ally of President Lukashenko.
Nexta Live and its sister Nexta – with nearly two million subscribers on the Telegraph messenger – are popular voices in Belarus and helped to strengthen the opposition.
In October, Belarus called the Nexta Telegraph and its logo “extremist” and ordered it shut down. Re-sending information in transit is penalized.
The Baltic EU in Lithuania has given Protasevich the opportunity to flee his home after a bloody genocide in Belarus following a controversial election last August. Tikhanovskaya fled to Lithuania and is still there.
Belarus saw an unprecedented move great shows Lukashenko’s sixth term in August last year was marred by vote by Western critics and spies.
Police in riot gear stormed a rally on Friday, removing hundreds of protesters by truck.
Although the protests ended in the winter, Belarus continued to take action against dissidents and independent journalists. Last week, 11 employees of the TUT.by press page were arrested by police.
The EU and the United States have endorsed Lukashenko with numerous officials and businessmen arrested in his government for shutting down the economy and banning visas.