Belarus arrests opposition figure after flight diverted

Exiled opposition activist Roman Protasevich detained after his flight from Greece to Lithuania was diverted to Minsk.

Belarus police detain journalist Roman Protasevich in Minsk, Belarus, 2017 [File: Sergei Grits/AP Photo]
Belarus police detain journalist Roman Protasevich in Minsk, Belarus, 2017 [File: Sergei Grits/AP Photo]

23 May 2021|Updated: 12 minutes ago

A founder of a messaging app channel that has been a key information conduit for opponents of Belarus’s authoritarian president has been arrested after an airliner on which he was travelling was diverted to the capital, Minsk, because of a bomb threat.

The presidential press service said President Alexander Lukashenko personally ordered that a MiG-29 fighter jet accompany the Ryanair plane – travelling on Sunday from Athens, Greece, to Vilnius, Lithuania – to the Minsk airport.

The Belarusian Interior Ministry said Raman Pratasevich was arrested at the airport. Pratasevich is a co-founder of the Telegram messaging app’s Nexta channel, which Belarus last year declared as “extremist” after it was used to help organise large protests against Lukashenko.

Pratasevich, who had fled the country for Poland, faces charges that could carry a prison sentence of up to 15 years.

The presidential press service said the bomb threat was received while the plane was over Belarusian territory; officials later said no explosives were found on board.

Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda demanded that Belarus release Protasevich.

“Unprecedented event! A civilian passenger plane flying to Vilnius was forcibly landed in #Minsk,” Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda said on Twitter.

“Belarusian political activist & founder of @NEXTA_EN was on the plane. He is arrested. Regime is behind the abhorrent action.

He also urged NATO and the European Union to “immediately react to the threat posed by the Belarusian regime to international civil aviation” in a separate statement issued by his office.

“I will talk about it at the EU summit in Brussels tomorrow,” Nauseda said.

The European Union said on Sunday that all passengers on board the Ryanair plane must be allowed to resume their journeys immediately.

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