Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko forced a Ryanair flight from Lithuania to Minsk on Sunday to arrest his opponent, critics said, sparking outrage in Brussels and Europe’s capital.
Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, Belarus’s opposition leader, said Roman Protasevich’s online activist, who lives in Lithuania, had been arrested in Belarus’s capital, and called on all countries to respond.
“From now on – no one flying in Belarus – can be safe,” he wrote on Twitter, after a Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius unexpectedly flew to Minsk.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen wrote online that forced coercion was “never accepted” and urged Belarus to allow all passengers to travel safely to Vilnius. “Any violation of international aviation law must have consequences,” he wrote.
Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda has called for the immediate release of Protasevich and will address the issue at an EU summit on Monday. “I urge Nato and the EU to take immediate action on the threat posed by the Belarussian government,” Nauseda said in a statement.
Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki wrote on the internet asking for “urgent action” in Belarus. “The hijacking of civilian airplanes by unprecedented government terrorism. We will not punish, ”Morawiecki wrote.
Protasevich, 26, is a former editor of Nexta, a Warsaw-based media group that has played a major role in writing and directing major protests against Lukashenko last year.
Lukashenko himself issued an “immutable order to turn the plane around,” before taking off from Belarus airport, according to a statement from the president’s office on the message.
Belarus security forces did not immediately confirm Protasevich’s arrest.
Last November, Belarus placed Protasevich on a list of terrorist groups and charged him with three counts of conspiracy, the worst of which is 15 years in prison.
Lithuania’s foreign ministry has stated in a statement that Protasevich has been “detained by the Minsk government”. Ryanair did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
According to Protasevich’s messages to his colleagues, he was tracked down by a suspected KGB agent in Belarus while in custody. The man stood behind her on the stairs and tried to draw a picture of her documents, the defendant wrote a message to his friends. Protasevich said the man asked him a “stupid question” in Russian and then left.
After the plane landed at Belarus, a “dispute” broke out between a passenger and a crew, a Lithuanian airport official told Delfi. The plane turned around the Lithuanian border and landed in Minsk, according to a travel investigation.
Andrei Gurtsevich, the army’s chief of staff, said Belarus had decided to evacuate the MiG-29 fighter jet after it had heard of a bomb threat, “according to Belta. Airport officials later said the bomb threat was” false “.
Nexta has angered Lukashenko’s outrage over the publication of last year’s protests and the brutality of Lukashenko’s government in response. His method of using the message has more than 1.2m, which is the largest audience in the world only 9.5m.
Thousands of Belarusians took to the streets in protest as the former agriculture minister, who ruled Belarus with a fist for 27 years, won the Tsikhanouskaya victory in last year’s presidential election.
Most of the protesters are in exile like Tsikhanouskaya, who lives in Lithuania, or in prison.
Additional reports of Richard Milne in Oslo.