KYIV, Ukraine — In a brazen move widely condemned by Western leaders, Belarus forced a civilian airliner to land on its territory on Sunday to arrest an opposition journalist.
Following a bogus bomb threat, a Belarusian fighter jet forced Ryanair Flight FR4978, a Boeing 737 reportedly carrying as many as 171 passengers, to land in Minsk. Once the jet was on the ground, security agents arrested one of the passengers — Raman Pratasevich, a 26-year-old Lithuania-based blogger who has been a vocal critic of Belarus’ president, Alexander Lukashenko.
The Ryanair flight was en route from Greece to Lithuania when Belarusian air traffic control alerted the flight crew that there was a bomb on board the aircraft, requiring an immediate landing in Minsk. A Soviet-era MiG-29 fighter jet scrambled to intercept the aircraft and escorted it to a landing in the Belarusian capital.
Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said the Ryanair jet was “hijacked” and that the Belarusian air intercept was “an act of state terrorism.”
I condemn in the strongest terms the detention of Roman Protasevich by Belarussian authorities, after a Ryanair passenger aircraft was hijacked. This is a reprehensible act of state terrorism.
— Mateusz Morawiecki (@MorawieckiM) May 23, 2021
On the ground in Minsk, security agents discovered there was no bomb aboard the Ryanair jet. According to area media reports, police took Pratasevich off the aircraft during the search. Then, after a delay of some seven hours on the ground in Minsk, the Ryanair flight completed its trip to the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius, Reuters reported.
According to a statement by Ryanair: “Passengers were offloaded while security checks were completed by local authorities. Nothing untoward was found and authorities cleared the aircraft to depart together with passengers and crew.”
According to reports in media a Belarus journalist, that was onboard the flight, was arrested after the diversion to Minsk. pic.twitter.com/MQyvXsDExM
— Flightradar24 (@flightradar24) May 23, 2021
American citizens were on board the Ryanair jetliner, the US State Department reported, without giving an exact number.
“This shocking act perpetrated by the Lukashenka regime endangered the lives of more than 120 passengers, including U.S. citizens,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement posted Sunday to the State Department’s website. “Initial reports suggesting the involvement of the Belarusian security services and the use of Belarusian military aircraft to escort the plane are deeply concerning and require full investigation.”
Latvia’s airBaltic, the country’s flag carrier, announced it would no longer fly within Belarusian airspace. The Hungarian airline Wizz Air also announced that its flights would bypass Belarus. According to an aid, the Polish prime minister reportedly is ready to push for a blanket European Union ban on flights to Belarus.
The International Civil Aviation Organization — the UN’s air traffic agency — also condemned the Belarusian air intercept, warning that the incident could violate the Chicago Convention, a treaty governing international air travel safety that dates back to 1944.
ICAO is strongly concerned by the apparent forced landing of a Ryanair flight and its passengers, which could be in contravention of the Chicago Convention. We look forward to more information being officially confirmed by the countries and operators concerned.
— ICAO (@icao) May 23, 2021
According to news reports and flight tracker data, the Ryanair jetliner was already over Belarus and only minutes from crossing into Lithuanian airspace when its crew was alerted to the so-called security threat and ordered to divert to Minsk. Shortly thereafter, the Belarusian fighter intercepted the civilian airliner and prosecuted what NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg described Sunday as a “forcible landing.”
“This is a serious & dangerous incident which requires international investigation,” Stoltenberg wrote on Twitter, describing Sunday’s Ryanair intercept.
According to multiple news reports, Pratasevich was wanted in Belarus on suspicion of various extremism charges, including the organization of mass disorder, disruption of social order, and inciting social hatred. Pratasevich reportedly faces the death penalty for the charges levied against him.
Closely monitoring forcible landing in #Belarus of flight to Vilnius & reported detention of opposition figure Roman Protasevich. This is a serious & dangerous incident which requires international investigation. Belarus must ensure safe return of crew & all passengers.
— Jens Stoltenberg (@jensstoltenberg) May 23, 2021
Western leaders roundly condemned the brazen effort to bring Pratasevich to Belarusian soil.
Officials from the US, the UK, Ireland, Germany, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Poland, and the Czech Republic issued a joint statement condemning what they said amounted to an “act of piracy.”
“This act of state terror and kidnapping is a threat to all those who travel in Europe and beyond. It cannot be allowed to stand,” the joint statement read.
“This outlandish action by Lukashenko will have serious implications,” British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said.
Nationwide protests erupted in Belarus in August after a presidential election in which Lukashenko, a de facto dictator who has ruled over Belarus for some 26 years, claimed to have taken more than 80% of the vote. Protesters said the election was rigged. The leading opposition candidate, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, subsequently fled to neighboring Lithuania, citing concerns for her children’s safety.
The regime forced the landing @Ryanair plane in Minsk to arrest journalist and activist Raman Pratasevich. He faces the death penalty in Belarus. We demand immediate release of Raman, @ICAO investigation, and sanctions against Belarus. pic.twitter.com/ondPBd0kU9
— Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya (@Tsihanouskaya) May 23, 2021
Lukashenko rules Belarus with an iron grip. The country’s state security service is still called the KGB. Amid widespread reports of police brutality and state-sponsored torture against protesters and journalists, the US and the EU, along with other international organizations, called Lukashenko’s electoral victory last year illegitimate.
Pratasevich reportedly ran the opposition news outlets NEXTA and NEXTA Live. The NEXTA Live Telegram channel published scenes from last year’s protests in Belarus, drawing condemnation from Lukashenko’s regime. Pratasevich, who was won multiple awards for his muckraking journalism, now works for a different Telegram channel called Belamova, according to multiple news reports.
“It seems to me that the [state] power now considers nearly any expression of a different opinion in general to be a crime,” Pratasevich told Current Time, a Russian-language network run by RFE/RL, in cooperation with Voice of America, from Poland in November after Minsk had issued a warrant for his arrest.