Belarus has provoked outrage from leaders across the globe after using a fighter jet to force a Ryanair passenger plane to land in its capital so it could detain an opposition journalist.
Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, who has been the first and only president of Belarus since 1994, ordered a MiG-29 fighter jet to escort a Ryanair flight carrying around 170 passengers to Minsk following a “bomb threat”, according to his press service.
The flight was travelling from Athens to Vilnius on 23 May when it was instructed to divert to Minsk by air traffic control in Belarus due to a “potential security threat on board”.
“The aircraft landed safely and passengers were offloaded while security checks were completed by local authorities,” the airline said in a statement posted to its Twitter.
The airline said nothing “untoward” was found on the flight and it was cleared to depart after seven hours on the ground in 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 continued.
Roman Protasevich, the former editor of one of Belarus most popular opposition outlets, was arrested during the plane’s unexpected stopover, according to The New York Times.
Protasevich told those seated nearby that he was “facing the death penalty”, according to Agency France-Presse.
“He was not screaming, but it was clear that he was very much afraid,” one passenger said.
“It looked like if the window had been open, he would have jumped out of it.”
A guy sitting next to Roman Protasevich on the plane: "They took us out of the plane, the dogs sniffed our luggage. They took that guy (Roman) aside, threw his belongings on the runway. We asked him what’s going on. He told me who he is and added, “They'll execute me here”(1/2) pic.twitter.com/Nm00NY4YAW
— Tadeusz Giczan (@TadeuszGiczan) May 23, 2021
The UN’s International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) posted to Twitter and said it was “strongly concerned” by the incident, which may have violated the Chicago Convention.
The president of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen said the incident was “utterly unacceptable”.
“ALL passengers must be able to continue their travel to Vilnius immediately and their safety ensured,” she said in a tweet.
“Any violation of international air transport rules must bear consequences.”
It is utterly unacceptable to force @Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius to land in Minsk.
ALL passengers must be able to continue their travel to Vilnius immediately and their safety ensured.
Any violation of international air transport rules must bear consequences.
— Ursula von der Leyen (@vonderleyen) May 23, 2021
Lithuania and Greece are both members of the European Union, but Belarus is not.
Australia has joined countries around the world in condemning Belurus’ actions, according to a statement from foreign minister Marise Payne, who said “Australia will engage with allies and partners in response to this act”.
“This unprecedented action put innocent lives of airline passengers at risk and was a clear breach of the international standards that underpin civil aviation,” she said.
Australia strongly condemns the interception and forced landing of a commercial flight by the Government of Belarus, and the subsequent arrest of a Belarusian opposition blogger. Australia will engage with allies and partners in the response to this act.https://t.co/nFnODTydde
— Marise Payne (@MarisePayne) May 24, 2021
Other countries that have been vocal about their condemnation of Protasevich’s arrest include the US, Poland, France, Greece and Ireland.
Both Lithuania and Latvia have called for international flights to avoid Belarusian airspace, according to SBS News.
The 26-year-old journalist had been living in Lithuania out of fear of imprisonment in his home country and was on his way back from an economic conference in Greece with Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya.
He was placed on Belarus’ security service, KGB’s list of wanted terrorists and is accused of inciting hatred and mass disorder, which fetches 12 years in prison if he is convicted.
The arrest comes after the country reinforced its crackdown on political opposition following the heavily disputed presidential election last year.
Featured image source: iStock/MoreISO