(CNN) – International condemnation grows after Belarus’ authoritarian leader diverted a Ryanair flight to Minsk to detain a dissident journalist, in what the airline chief described as a “state hijacking.”Some European leaders repeatedly asked that airlines avoid the airspace of Belarus, for its citizens to leave the country and for opposition activist Roman Protasevich to be released.
Protasevich was traveling on Sunday on Ryanair flight 4978 from Athens, Greece, to Vilnius, Lithuania, when shortly before landing the plane was diverted by Belarusian air traffic control to the capital, Minsk, due to an alleged security alert.
Ryanair Chief Executive Michael O’Leary accused Belarus of “state sponsored piracy”, telling Newstalk radio on Monday that he believed there were also KGB operatives from Belarus on the flight Protasevich was traveling on. 26, who is wanted in Belarus on various charges.
Similarly, the Chancellor of Ireland, Simon Coveney, stated that it is possible that secret services agents were on the plane, and told the Irish broadcaster RTE that the agents were “clearly linked to the Belarusian regime”.
“When the plane landed, five or six people did not get back on before it took off again, but in reality only one or two people stopped, which certainly suggests that several of the other people who left the plane were from the plane. secret service, “he added.
Airlines and governments announce measures
Belarus borders three European Union member states, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland, and European Union leaders debated new measures on Monday against the government of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko.
Lithuania ordered all flights to and from its airports to avoid the country’s airspace from early Tuesday, an adviser to the Minister of Transport told CNN, and the Foreign Ministry urged its citizens to leave Belarus. alleging “risks to security and a threat to the lives of civilians.”
Latvia’s flag carrier airBaltic said it had “decided to avoid entering Belarusian airspace until the situation clears up or the authorities make a decision.”
Scandinavian Airlines also said in a statement Monday that it would reroute its twice-weekly flights between Oslo and Kiev, the capitals of Norway and Ukraine, following instructions from Sweden’s transport agency.
In the UK, Transport Secretary Grant Shapp said he had instructed the country’s aviation authorities to “request airlines to avoid Belarusian airspace in order to keep passengers safe.”
Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said he would call for the suspension of all flights between European Union member states and Belarus, Reuters reported. And German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas called for Protasevich’s immediate release and requested information on the activist’s well-being.
Shortly after the plane landed, Protasevich was detained along with Sofia Sapega, a Russian student he was traveling with.
Protasevich is one of dozens of journalists and activists from Belarus campaigning in exile against Lukashenko’s 26-year rule. Protasevich is the founder of the Telegram channel Nexta, which helped mobilize protests against Lukashenko, and was accused last year of “organizing mass riots and group actions that seriously violate public order.” He’s on a government wanted list for terrorism.
When the pilot announced that the plane would be diverted to nearby Minsk, Protasevich reacted immediately, rising from his seat, reaching into the overhead compartment, pulling a laptop out of his carry-on luggage and handing it to a female colleague along with his cell phone, they said. witnesses to Reuters. “When it was announced that they were going to land in Minsk, Roman got up, opened the trunk, took the luggage and tried to distribute his things,” said a Lithuanian passenger, who gave only his name as Mantas, Reuters reported.
I think he made a mistake. There were a lot of people, so he was able to give the things to me or to other passengers and not to the girlfriend, who I think was also arrested.
Other passengers said Protasevich appeared scared and said he feared he would face the death penalty. Marius Rutkauskas, who was sitting behind Protasevich, told Lithuanian state television LRT that passengers were initially told that the plane would land in Minsk due to a technical failure.
“A man sat down with his girlfriend and you could see he was starting to panic. As I understood it, it was the journalist. He panicked because we were going to land in Minsk. He said the death penalty awaited him in Belarus, ”said Rutkauskas.
Likewise, the passenger Monika Simkiene told AFP that Protasevich “addressed the people and said that the death penalty awaited him.”
The Ryanair plane changed course
There are conflicting accounts of why the plane changed its route at the last minute. Ryanair claims its crew was’ notified by ATC [control de tráfico aéreo] from Belarus of a possible threat to safety on board and was instructed to divert to the nearest airport, Minsk, ‘even though the plane was closer to Vilnius than to Minsk when it changed course.
Meanwhile, the deputy commander of the Belarusian Air Defense Forces, Major General Andrey Gurtsevich, claimed that after the Ryanair crew was informed of a “possible bomb on board”, it was the captain who “took the action. decision to land at the reserve aerodrome (Minsk-2) ‘.
Gurtsevich said a Belarusian Air Force MiG29 aircraft was dispatched to supervise the flight and “assist” if necessary.
The Belarusian government’s version of events aroused widespread disbelief, despite the fact that when the plane landed there was an elaborate deployment of fire trucks, as well as an exhaustive baggage check. According to Ryanair, nothing inappropriate was found.
Protasevich and Sapega were arrested and detained upon arrival in Minsk. Student Sapega was preparing to defend her master’s thesis in International Law and European Law at Vilinus, according to the European University of Humanities (EHU).
“The student was detained by the Administration of the Minsk City Investigation Committee under unfounded and fabricated conditions,” the EHU said in a statement.
Upon arrival, Protasevich’s luggage was searched and sniffer dogs were deployed, but nothing was found, Reuters reported.
“We saw that Roman was detained because of some things in the luggage,” passenger Mantas told Reuters, adding that the other passengers also had their luggage checked and were taken by bus to the terminal, where they spent several hours waiting for get back on the plane.
“We saw from the window that Roman is alone and a policeman with a dog was trying to find something (in his luggage).”
Another passenger, who also did not give his name, told Lithuanian media that Protasevich had identified himself to security agents in Belarus upon arrival. «I saw their passport taken away. He took off his mask and said, ‘I’m so and so and I’m the reason all this is happening.’
The incident has been condemned by world leaders. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said in a tweet: “The scandalous and illegal behavior of the Belarusian regime will have consequences. Those responsible for the hijacking of #Ryanair must be punished. The journalist Roman Protasevich must be released immediately.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken condemned the incident on Sunday and demanded Protasevich’s release. “This scandalous act perpetrated by the Lukashenko regime endangered the lives of more than 120 passengers, including US citizens,” Blinken said in a statement. “Initial reports suggesting the involvement of Belarusian security services and the use of Belarusian military aircraft to escort the aircraft are deeply concerning and require a full investigation.”
But Belarus claims that Western countries are acting “hastily” by making “belligerent” statements about the incident on Sunday. Foreign Ministry press secretary Anatoliy Glaz told Russian state media RIA Novosti that a “number of countries” and the European Union were making “deliberately politicized and unsubstantiated accusations,” and said those nations have no ” no apparent desire to understand it objectively. ‘
Glaz defended Belarus’ action on Sunday as “fully justified” to ensure the safety of passengers and crew. “There is no doubt that the actions of our competent authorities also fully complied with established international standards,” he said.
Russia, a key Belarusian ally, said it would not comment on the combat diversion. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said in a conference call with journalists on Monday that it was up to international aviation authorities to determine whether Belarus was complying with the rules.
–Tim Lister, Zahra Ullah, George Engels, Chris Liakos and Claudia Otto of CNN contributed to this report. With additional information from Reuters.