Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Minsk was taking an ‘absolutely reasonable approach’ to the detention of journalist Roman Protasevich, after was hauled off the plane and arrested after his flight from Greece to Lithuania made an emergency landing in Belarus on Sunday.
Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova mocked the Western indignation at the ‘hijacking’ writing on Facebook she was ‘shocked that the West calls the incident in Belarusian air space ‘shocking” and accusing Western nations of ‘kidnappings, forced landings, and illegal arrests’.
It comes as Belarus opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya said she fears Protasevich, 26, is likely being ‘tortured’ following his arrest.
She said the journalist, who has been described as a ‘private enemy’ of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, was probably ‘in awful circumstances’ and being ‘tortured, because he knows lots of information.’
‘We’re really afraid, not only for his freedom but for his life’, she told Sky News.
Minsk was again the centre of a security alert on Monday afternoon after German airline Lufthansa said a flight to the Belarusian capital from Frankfurt was suspended due to a security warning.
Protasevich’s flight made a sharp deviation from its course just a few miles from the Lithuanian border before landing in Minsk on Sunday, leading some aviation experts to believe that the MiG-29 fighter jet may even have threatened to shoot the Ryanair plane down.
Suspicions have fallen on four passengers, believed to be KGB agents, who voluntarily departed in Minsk, not continuing with the flight when it travelled on to its final destination, the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius.
Their presence has stoked fears that Belarusian or Russian agents were involved in a murky operation to arrest Protasevich who had begged the crew not to follow the order, saying ‘they will kill me’ and telling a fellow passenger on the ground that he faced ‘the death penalty.’
Yale University History Professor Timothy Snyder added fuel to rumours of Russian involvement, claiming in a tweet: ‘Belarus would not have hijacked an EU place without Russian approval’.
It comes as EU President Ursula von der Leyen slammed Lukashenko’s ‘outrageous and illegal behaviour’ and vowed those responsible for the hijacking would be sanctioned. EU leaders are meeting for a two-day summit today to decide on a joint response to the act of ‘aviation piracy’.
Opposition journalist Roman Protasevich, 26, (pictured after he was separated from other passengers) was hauled off the plane and arrested with his Russian girlfriend Sofia Sapega, 23, after the flight from Greece to Lithuania made the emergency landing in Minsk
Opposition journalist Roman Protasevich’s girlfriend Sofia Sapega who was also detained
NEXTA, Protasevich’s outlet, was closely involved in reporting a wave of opposition protests that last year threatened to topple Lukashenko, before he was given backing by Vladimir Putin
Aviation experts have claimed that Belarus threatened to shoot down the Athens to Vilnius Ryanair flight unless it did not land immediately (pictured: a MiG-29 fighter jet involved in the incident arriving back at base in Belarus). Their presence has stoked fears of Russian secret services involvement in a murky operation to arrest opposition journalist Roman Protasevich, 26, a passenger on the plane who was detained with his girlfriend Sofia Sapega, 23, in Minsk
Protasevich, an outspoken critic of Belarusian Lukashenko – dubbed ‘Europe’s last dictator’ – was wanted for his role in organising massive protests against him after rigged elections last year.
Lukashenko, an ally of Vladimir Putin, personally gave the ‘unequivocal order’ to ‘make the plane do a U-turn and land,’ according to a statement by Belarus’s presidential news service.
Tsikhanouskaya called for wider sanctions on the Lukashenko’s regime after Protasevich’s arrest, which she said was ‘the result of impunity’.
‘For nine months already we have been fighting against the regime after fraudulent elections, but the regime still feels impunity and you see they use such awful methods of kidnapping people,’ she said.
‘We have to put much more pressure on this regime for them to stop violence and to release political prisoners.’
She said she though it ‘unbelievable’ the regime had lasted long under these circumstances, especially because ‘the whole county is against the regime’.
‘The only question is, how many victims will there be during this fight for freedom and for democracy? I’m sure that these changes will come soon’, she added.
The airliner full of tourists made an emergency landing at Minsk Airport yesterday after being escorted by a MiG-29 fighter jet amid reports of a bomb on board
Journalists and Belarusian activists wait to see passengers of the Ryanair plane carrying opposition figure Raman Pratasevich at the International Airport outside Vilnius, Lithuania
Ryanair flight FR4978 had been flying from Athens in Greece to Vilnius in Lithuania when it was escorted by a Soviet-era MiG-29 fighter jet to Belarus amid fake reports of an IED on board. It was forced to make an emergency landing at Minsk Airport, where authorities arrested dissident journalist Roman Protasevich
Ryanair boss Michael O’Leary has condemned ‘state-sponsored piracy’ by Belarus after one of his passenger jets was yesterday forced to land by a warplane on the pretext of a bomb threat.
Irish airline boss O’Leary called it a ‘state-sponsored hijacking’ on Monday, adding that ‘we believe there were some KGB agents offloaded at the airport as well.’
Tory MP Tom Tugendhat this morning called it ‘a warlike act,’ joining the British, Irish and American governments in their condemnation.
‘This was a flight between two NATO members and between two EU members,’ the Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman told Radio 4. ‘If it’s not an act of war, it’s certainly a warlike act.’
Dominic Raab vowed to hold Lukashenko accountable ‘for his outlandish actions’ with further sanctions and demanded the ‘immediate release of Protasevich.’
His Irish counterpart Simon Coveney was also withering, saying that Dublin – where Ryanair is headquartered – would not allow the ‘state-sponsored piracy’ to go unpunished.
‘We cannot allow this incident to pass on the basis of warnings or strong press releases,’ Coveney told RTE. ‘I think there has to be real edge to the sanctions that are applied on the back of this. This was effectively aviation piracy, state-sponsored.’
Moscow defended its ally, with foreign minister Sergei Lavrov calling Lukashenko’s action an ‘absolutely reasonable approach.’
‘A representative of the Belarusian foreign ministry… stressed the readiness of the Belarusian authorities to act on the issue in a transparent manner and to follow all international rules,’ Lavrov said during a press conference following a meeting with his Greek counterpart.
‘I think this is an absolutely reasonable approach.’
He called on the global community to ‘soberly assess the situation’.
Earlier Monday, authorities in Belarus insisted they had acted legally when they diverted the flight. They instead accused the West of making unfounded claims for political reasons.
Several European airlines including AirBaltic, Air Austria and Wizz Air were avoiding Belarusian air space today as EU leaders were set to meet in Brussels ton discuss furthers sanctions against Lukashenko.
AirBaltic said it was monitoring the situation and would avoid Belarus airspace until it ‘becomes clearer’. It added: ‘the safety and health of our passengers and employees in the main priority’.
The Foreign Affairs Committee has called for a complete flight ban on Belarusian airspace. MP Tugendhat said he wanted to see a flight ban ‘to protect our citizens’.
Ryanair boss O’Leary (left) described the act today as ‘state-sponsored hijacking,’ adding that ‘we believe there were some KGB agents offloaded at the airport as well.’ Tory MP Tom Tugendhat (right) called it ‘a warlike act,’ joining the British and US governments, among other Western nations, who have condemned the grounding of the Ryanair flight.
On Sunday, Ryanair Flight 4978 had already begun its descent into the Lithuanian capital when the pilot announced that the plane would be suddenly diverting to Minsk. There was no explanation.
But Protasevich reacted immediately, standing up from his seat, reaching into the overhead locker, pulling a laptop computer from his hand luggage and passing it to his girlfriend along with his mobile phone.
‘When it was announced they were going to land in Minsk, Roman stood up, opened the luggage compartment, took luggage and was trying to split things,’ said a Lithuanian passenger, who gave his name only as Mantas.
‘I think he made a mistake. There were plenty of people so he could give the things to me or other passengers and not the girlfriend, who was also I think arrested.’
Outside the plane – although not visible to Mantas – was a Soviet-era MiG-29, on orders from Lukashenko to force the plane to Minsk.
Mantas was speaking to Reuters after a day-long ordeal that began in Athens and finally ended late in the evening in the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius, after a stopover of more than seven hours in Minsk.
Another exhausted passenger, speaking to reporters without giving her name, said Protasevich looked ‘super scared’.
ROMAN PROTASEVICH: OPPOSITION BLOGGER FORCED INTO EXILE
Protasevich, 26, has long been a thorn in the side of Belarus’s hardline dictator Alexander Lukashenko.
He worked as an editor at the Poland-based Nexta Live channel, which is based on the Telegram messenger app and has over 1 million subscribers. The channel, which is openly hostile to Lukashenko, played an important role in broadcasting huge opposition protests against the President last year.
Nexta also helped coordinate those same protests, which were sparked by anger over what the opposition said was a rigged presidential election. The channel’s footage, which showed how harshly police cracked down on demonstrators, was used widely by international media at a time when the Belarusian authorities were reluctant to allow foreign media in.
In November Protasevich published a copy of an official Belarusian list of terrorists on which his name figured. The listing said he was accused of organising mass riots while working at Nexta. He also stands accused of disrupting social order and of inciting social hatred. He regards the allegations, which could see him jailed for years, as unjustified political repression.
Protasevich fled Belarus for Poland in 2019 due to pressure from the authorities, according to Media Solidarity, a group that supports Belarusian journalists. He moved his parents to Poland too after they were put under surveillance. He later relocated to Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, where opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya is also based.
Protasevich is currently editor-in-chief of a Belarusian political outlet hosted on the Telegram messaging app called ‘Belarus of the Brain’ which has around a quarter of a million subscribers.
He was flying back to Vilnius from Greece where he had spent time taking photographs of a visit there by Tsikhanouskaya. He had posted the pictures to social media before flying back.
‘I looked directly into his eyes and he was very sad,’ she said.
Protasevich was immediately separated on arrival in Minsk and checks of luggage using sniffer dogs turned up nothing.
‘We saw that Roman was stopped due to some things in the luggage,’ Mantas said, adding that the other passengers also had their luggage checked and were taken by bus to the terminal where they spent several hours waiting to reboard the plane.
‘We saw from the window that Roman is standing alone, and one policeman with 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 Belarusian security officials on arrival. ‘I saw how his passport was taken away. He took off his mask and said: ‘I’m so-and-so and I’m the reason why all this is going on.”
Aviation experts today revealed that the passenger plane had been significantly closer to Vilnius than it was to Minsk when it was forced to turn around, making a mockery of the Belarusian claims that it needed to make an emergency landing for a bomb threat.
Leading opposition figure Pavel Latushko said: ‘The air traffic controllers of Minsk-2 airport threatened to shoot at the Ryanair civilian plane with passengers on board. For this reason, a military fighter MiG-29 of Belarus Air Force was sent.
‘This proves again that this incident was an act of state terrorism… It demands an immediate reaction of European authorities and the entire world community.’
Ryanair did not deny the claims this morning, telling MailOnline: ‘Ryanair condemns the unlawful actions of Belarusian authorities who diverted Ryanair’s flight FR4978 to Minsk yesterday (23 May), which was an act of aviation piracy.
‘This is now being dealt with by EU safety and security agencies & NATO. Ryanair is fully cooperating with them and we cannot comment further for security reasons.’
Latushko heads the National Anti-Crisis Management, a shadow government set up last year by the Belarusian Coordination Council for the peaceful transfer of power following the ‘rigged’ 2020 election, widely seen as stolen by President Alexander Lukashenko.
He is a former culture minister of Belarus and was the country’s ambassador to France, Spain and Portugal before joining the opposition.
The claim about the shooting had come via the Belarus civil aviation authority, he said.
Mantas, a Lithuanian passenger of Ryanair flight FR4978, speaks to the media after arriving at Vilnius Airport, Lithuani
Belarusian dog handler checks luggage from the Ryanair flight in Minsk International Airport on May 23
The Belarus authorities claimed its bomb-disposal squad was examining the plane
Was Ryanair hijacking a KGB sting? Ally of arrested blogger claims Belarusian spies ‘initiated fight with cabin crew by insisting there was a bomb on board’
A member of the Nexta team, Tadeusz Giczan, said on Twitter that representatives of the Belarusian security agency had been on the flight with Protasevich.
‘Then when the plane had entered Belarus airspace, the KGB officers initiated a fight with the Ryanair crew insisting there’s an IED onboard,’ he said.
A spokeswoman for state company Lithuanian Airports, Lina Beisine, told AFP that Minsk airport had said the flight was redirected ‘due to a conflict between a member of the crew and the passengers’.
Ryanair said the flight’s crew had been notified by Belarus air traffic control of ‘a potential security threat on board’ and were instructed to divert to Minsk, the ‘nearest’ airport.
The EU and the United States have sanctioned Lukashenko and dozens of officials and businessmen tied to his regime with asset freezes and visa bans.
The opposition protests in Belarus, which left at least four people dead, have now subsided, but journalists and activists continue to receive prison sentences in the aftermath.
Moscow-based aviation expert Vadim Lukashevich said he too believed that a threat to shoot down the Ryanair flight had been made.
He said: ‘To make it crystal clear – the pilots of the Ryanair plane that was forced to land in Belarus were pulling towards the destination Vilnius until the last possible moment.
‘They had to turn back under the threat of a fighter jet when the distance to Vilnius airport was only 45 miles away and only 19 miles to the Lithuanian border.’
He claimed the Ryanair pilots were ‘heading towards Lithuania without slowing down… they were escaping from the fighter jet, and they turned back just two minutes before crossing the Lithuanian border. ‘
Flightradar data showed the plane had not slowed to descend at the usual height on this route but appeared to be flying as fast as possible to the border – before abruptly turning back, seemingly on the orders of the MiG-29.
He is convinced that ‘the fighter had permission to shoot’, he said.
‘And I am absolutely sure that the crew of the passenger aircraft turned around only after receiving a notification from the Belarusian fighter that, in case of disobedience, it would open fire before the passenger plane left the airspace of Belarus.’
Meanwhile, a leading Russian investigative journalist Roman Dobrokhotov revealed that as well as Protasevich’s girlfriend Sapega, four Russian passengers who had been on the flight to Lithuania left it in Minsk.
He claimed: ‘Four citizens of Russia did not continue the flight to Vilnius.
‘This operation was escorted by Russian special services.’
One of Russia’s most respected independent journalists Alexey Venediktov, editor-in-chief of Echo Moscow radio, said: ‘Four more Russians didn’t follow on to Vilnius, but left the plane in Minsk, and dissolved into the nature.’
Another source suggests there were three not four Russians who left the plane, but in any event their identities are not known.
Sapega is a student of the European Humanities University, now based in Vilnius, after its forced closure by Lukashenko’s authorities in Minsk.
She is a Russian citizen, and the university where she studies international law has expressed deep concern for her fate.
Political detainees in Belarus are frequently tortured by the KGB secret service and police.
A passenger named Raselle, a beautician, was videoed on the plane when it landed in Minsk posted a message to say that Protasevich had said to the flight attendant: ‘Don’t do this, they will kill me. I am refugee.
‘He answered: We must, we have no choice, it’s in Ryanair legal agreements.’
A woman covered with an old Belarusian national flag holds a phone with a sticker in colors of an old Belarusian national flag as she waits to see passengers of the Ryanair plane carrying opposition figure Raman Pratasevich
The Ryanair plane, which was carrying blogger Roman Protasevich and was diverted to Belarus, lands at Vilnius Airport in Vilnius, Lithuania on Sunday
The Ryanair flight is parked at Minsk International Airport on Sunday after it was stopped by authorities
Passengers on the Ryanair flight filmed Belarusian officials walking towards the plane before Protasevich was arrested (left) while sniffer dogs searched bags (right)
Lithuanian Prime Minister Ingrida Simonyte came to Vilnius Airport for the plane’s arrival on Sunday, as did dozens of Belarusian opposition supporters
WHY HAVE THERE BEEN PROTESTS IN BELARUS?
Belarus, a former Soviet republic closely allied with Russia, was rocked by strikes and weeks of protests last summer after President Alexander Lukashenko, who has ruled since 1994, was re-elected.
The demonstrations started in the run-up to the August election day and became widespread after he claimed victory.
The results was rejected by opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who was soon forced into exile.
The massive demonstrations sparked by the vote were the largest and most persistent show of opposition the former Soviet republic has ever seen, with some of them attracting as many as 200,000 people.
More than 33,000 people were arrested during the protests and the police crackdown was brutal, with tear gas and rubber bullets used to disperse the masses, while others were beaten in the streets.
Thousands were detained as the protests rumbled on through the autumn, with political activists and journalists jailed or forced into exile in neighbouring former Soviet states.
At least four people were killed in the repression, with harrowing accounts emerging of abuse and torture in prisons.
Lukashenko, who has been in power for 26 years, has refused to step down and has secured backing from Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin.
The European Union has refused to recognise the results of the election and imposed sanctions on Belarus.
There have been sporadic demonstrations against Lukashenko this year, including on Freedom Day, March 25, when dozens of protesters were arrested in Minsk.
Belarus was disqualified from the weekend’s Eurovision Song Contest after lyrics of submitted songs were deemed to be mocking of anti-government protests.
Lithuania – a former Soviet state now in the EU and NATO – has led Western calls for action against its neighbour, Belarus.
‘It is an unprecedented attack against the international community: a civilian plane and its passengers have been hijacked by military force, and a Belarusian citizen has been abducted, whose life and health are in danger,’ said a government statement.
‘It is unjustifiable that ordinary international travellers have been held hostage to the regime’s aggression.
‘This is the act of state terrorism directed against the security of citizens of the European Union and other countries, civil society of Belarus seeking asylum from the regime’s persecution, as well as international civil aviation.
‘Lithuania will demand a clear and uncompromising response from the international community.’
Britain’s Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said in a statement on Monday: ‘The UK condemns yesterday’s actions by the Belarusian authorities, who arrested journalist Roman Protasevich on the basis of a ruse, having forced his flight to land in Minsk. Mr Lukashenko must be held to account for his outlandish actions.
‘The UK calls for the immediate release of Mr Protasevich and other political prisoners held in Belarus. The UK is working with our allies on a coordinated response, including further sanctions. The UK also calls for the ICAO Council to meet urgently to consider the regime’s flouting of the international rules safeguarding civil aviation.’
The 27 EU leaders open a two-day summit later Monday and the issue immediately shot to the top the agenda amid united condemnation of Lukashenko.
‘The outrageous and illegal behaviour of the regime in Belarus will have consequences,’ EU chief Ursula von der Leyen tweeted. ‘Those responsible for the Ryanair hijacking must be sanctioned.’
EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell called it ‘yet another blatant attempt by the Belarusian authorities to silence all opposition voices.’ He called the diversion of the plane an ‘inadmissible step’ highlighting a further worsening in relations between both sides.
The Belarusian Foreign Ministry on Monday bristled at what it described as ‘belligerent’ EU statements, insisting that the country’s authorities acted ‘in full conformity with international rules.’
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken called the incident ‘shocking’ and accused the Belarusian government of endangering the lives of those aboard the aircraft, including some Americans. He called for the release of Pratasevich and for the Council of the International Civil Aviation Organization to review the incident.
Police officers detained Roman Protasevich after he was attempting to cover a rally in Minsk, Belarus on 26 March 2017
‘I saw this Belarusian guy with girlfriend sitting right behind us. He freaked out when the pilot said the plane is diverted to Minsk. He said there’s death penalty awaiting him there,’ passenger Marius Rutkauskas said after the plane finally arrived in Vilnius.
‘We sat for an hour after the landing. Then they started releasing passengers and took those two. We did not see them again.’
Pratasevich was a co-founder of the Telegram messaging app’s Nexta channel, which played a prominent role in helping organise major protests against Belarus’ President Alexander Lukashenko.
The Belarusian authorities have designated it as extremist and levered charges of inciting riots against Pratasevich, who could face 15 years in prison if convicted.
Months of protests in Belarus were fueled by Lukashenko’s election to a sixth presidential term in an August vote that the opposition denounced as rigged.
More than 34,000 people have been arrested in Belarus since August, and thousands were brutally beaten.