US joins global outcry at Belarus over seizure of blogger from Ryanair flight

The US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, has joined European leaders in condemning Belarus for forcing a Ryanair flight carrying an opposition activist to land in the Belarusian capital Minsk.

European leaders – some of whom have already denounced the move to arrest blogger Roman Protasevich as an “act of state terror and kidnapping” – will meet on Monday to discuss what action could be taken against Belarus, for forcing the plane’s diversion during its flight from Athens to Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania.

Latvia and Lithuania said the airspace over Belarus should be considered unsafe, with Latvia’s foreign minister Edgars Rinkēvičs saying it should be closed to all international flights. Lithuanian police said it had launched a pre-trial investigation into “forced disappearance”.

Dominic Raab, the UK foreign secretary, said: “We are coordinating with our allies. This outlandish action by Lukashenko will have serious implications.”

Roman Protasevich, a former editor of the influential Telegram channels Nexta and Nexta Live, was detained by police in Minsk after the Belarusian president, Alexander Lukashenko, ordered his military to scramble a Mig-29 fighter to meet the plane.

Blinken said the US “strongly condemns the forced diversion of a flight between two EU member states and the subsequent removal and arrest of journalist Raman Pratasevich in Minsk. We demand his immediate release”.

“This shocking act perpetrated by the Lukashenka regime endangered the lives of more than 120 passengers, including US citizens,” the statement said. “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,” he said.

The passenger plane flying from Greece to Lithuania on Sunday was forced to perform an emergency landing in Minsk after a suspected threat. According to online flight data, the plane was over Belarusian airspace when it diverted course but was closer to Vilnius than Minsk. On its landing, authorities took Protasevich into custody.

The 26-year-old journalist worked for Poland-based online news service Nexta, which broadcast footage of mass protests against Lukashenko last year via the Telegram messenger app at a time when it was hard for foreign media to do so.

Roman Protasevich was taken into custody by Belarusian police.
Roman Protasevich was taken into custody by Belarusian police. Photograph: Artur Widak/NurPhoto/REX/Shutterstock

Protasevich is accused by Belarus authorities of organising mass riots and of inciting social hatred, allegations he denies.

“I’m facing the death penalty here,” a trembling Protasevich reportedly told a fellow passenger from the plane before he was led away by Belarusian police. The mass unrest charges against him carry a sentence of up to 15 years. His current whereabouts are unknown.

EU member state Lithuania, where Protasevich is based, urged the European Union and Nato to respond.

Ursula von der Leyen, head of the EU’s executive European Commission, tweeted that Protasevich must be released immediately and that those responsible for “the Ryanair hijacking must be sanctioned”.

Simon Coveney, foreign minister of Ireland, where Ryanair is based, welcomed Von der Leyen’s comments, adding: “EU inaction or indecision will be taken as weakness by Belarus.

The European Council president, Charles Michel, condemned the plane’s forced landing in the “strongest possible terms”.

“I call on Belarus authorities to immediately release the detained passenger and to fully guarantee his rights,” Michel said, warning the incident would “not remain without consequences”.

Nato’s secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, said the incident was “serious and dangerous” and required an international investigation.

Tom Tugendhat, the chair of the UK foreign affairs select committee, said: “If aircraft can be forced to the ground … in order to punish the political opponents of tyrants, then journalists here in the UK, politicians anywhere in Europe will find it harder to speak out.”

Ryanair issued a statement on the incident, saying the plane was searched when it was forced to land in Minsk and “nothing untoward was found” onboard: “Ryanair has informed the responsible national and European security agencies, and we sincerely apologise to all affected passengers for this regrettable delay, which was outside Ryanair’s control.”

The statement did not mention reports that a military jet had been scrambled to escort the jetliner or that a passenger from the flight had been detained during the stop in Minsk, sparking online criticism.

Data from the website showed the plane was diverted just two minutes before it was due to cross into Lithuanian airspace. After seven hours on the ground, the plane took off and finally landed in Vilnius where Lithuanian prime minister Ingrida Simonyte was waiting to meet the passengers.

“This is a completely unprecedented situation you have had to face,” she told the passengers.

Lukashenko’s press service said on its Telegram channel that he had given the order to divert the flight and had ordered a Mig-29 fighter jet to accompany the plane.

The EU has already sanctioned nearly 60 Belarusian officials, including Lukashenko and his son Victor, over accusations of elections fraud and then a heavy-handed crackdown on protesters that included widespread reports of brutal torture in Belarusian jails. Minsk has increasingly turned to Moscow for support, isolating it from the west but also limiting the effect of possible sanctions from Brussels or Washington.

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