Belarus hijacks prominent critic’s flight, stops him when he lands


A leading opponent of the authoritarian Belarusian president was arrested on Sunday after the airliner he was traveling in was diverted to the country after a bomb threat, in what opposition and Western officials denounced as a government hijacking operation.

Raman Pratasevich, who faces charges that could lead to 15 years in prison, was on board the Ryanair flight from Athens to the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius when he changed course to Minsk.

“I saw this Belarusian guy with his girlfriend sitting right behind us. He panicked when the pilot said the plane was being diverted to Minsk. He said the death penalty was waiting for him there,” Passenger Marius Rutkauskas said after the plane arrived in Vilnius after several hours. in the Belarusian capital.

“We sat for an hour after landing. Then they started releasing passengers and took these two. We did not see them again,” Rutkauskas said.

Flight tracking sites said the plane was around 10 kilometers from the Lithuanian border when it was hijacked. There were conflicting accounts of the move.

Supporters carrying old Belarusian national flags hold posters reading “ I am / we are Raman Pratasevich ” at the international airport. (Mindaugas Kulbis / The Associated Press)

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko’s press service said the president himself ordered a MiG-29 fighter jet to accompany the airliner after being informed of the bomb threat. Deputy Air Force Commander Andrei Gurtsevich said the crew of the plane made the decision to land in Minsk.

But Ryanair said in a statement that Belarusian air traffic control ordered the plane to divert to the capital.

Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda called the incident a “state sponsored terrorist act”. He said the European Council would discuss the matter on Monday and would propose banning Belarusian planes from European Union airports and “serious sanctions” against Lukashenko’s government.

“Belarusian airspace is completely dangerous for any commercial flight, and it should be considered as such not only by the EU but by the international community. Because now this instrument could be used for any aircraft crossing the airspace. Belarusian, ”Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius said. Landsbergis.

Pratasevich is the co-founder of the Nexta channel of the Telegram messaging app, which Belarus declared last year to be an extremist after being used to help organize major protests against Lukashenko. Protests have subsided in recent months, but Belarusian authorities continue to crack down on the opposition with arrests.

Belarusian police arrested journalist Raman Pratasevich in Minsk in March 2017. (Sergei Grits / The Associated Press)

The Belarusian presidential press service said the bomb threat was received as the plane flew over Belarusian territory. Officials later said no explosives were found on board.

The passengers were disembarked from the plane in Minsk. After the plane arrived in Vilnius, Defense Minister Arvydas Anusauskas said Pratasevich’s girlfriend and four other people had not re-boarded.

“We will find out who are the other four who did not travel with the others. Lithuania has launched an investigation to find out what really happened on this plane,” he said on Facebook.

Exiled opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya called on the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) to open an investigation.

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“It is absolutely obvious that this is a special services operation aimed at hijacking a plane in order to detain activist and blogger Raman Pratasevich,” she said in a statement. “Not a single person flying over Belarus can be sure of their safety.”

ICAO later said it “is deeply concerned about the apparent forced landing.”

Belarusian authorities said there were 123 passengers on the plane. But Landsbergis, the Lithuanian foreign minister, said there were 171.

‘Completely unacceptable’

Western countries have also expressed concern.

Belarus “has once again shown its contempt for the international community and its citizens,” said US Ambassador Julie Fisher, calling the event “dangerous and heinous”, while European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, tweeted: Athens to Vilnius to land in Minsk. “

Canadian Foreign Minister Marc Garneau, meanwhile, called the incident “a serious interference in civil aviation and a clear attack on media freedom” in a tweet published on Sunday.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas declared that “such an act cannot be left without specific consequences on the side of the European Union” and called for the release of Pratasevich.

Months of protests erupted in Belarus after the presidential election last August which, according to official results, gave Lukashenko a sixth term.

Police severely cracked down on the protests, detaining around 30,000 people and beating many of them.

Although protests died down during the winter, Belarus continued to take action against the opposition and independent news media. Last week, 11 staff at the news site were arrested by police.

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