International outrage increased as details emerged in Sunday’s forced landing of a commercial airliner in Minsk, Belarus, where security forces removed a prominent dissident journalist from the plane and arrested him.
Western officials condemned the act as one of state terror and air piracy. European nations may initiate flight bans over Belarus and the U.K. prevents Belarus’ national air carrier from flying in Britain.
Ryanair Flight 4978 was in Belarusian airspace when President Alexander Lukashenko personally ordered a MiG-29 fighter jet to divert the flight and escort it to the Minsk airport. The plane landed, and security officials searched it and passenger baggage.
Government officials arrested Roman Protasevich, 26, a journalist who co-founded a media outlet that has criticized the president. He could face up to 15 years in prison. A female companion was also arrested.
Protasevich faces charges of inciting public disorder and social hatred, the New York Times reported. A conviction of terrorism could bring the death penalty.
The flight, carrying 126 passengers and a crew of six, was en route from Athens, Greece, to Vilnius, Lithuania. Ryanair said air traffic control in Belarus radioed the flight crew that a bomb was onboard and told it to land in Minsk.
The BBC reported that Protasevich was frightened before his arrest and told passengers he would face the death penalty. Lawyers for Protasevich said he’s in a jail operated by the country’s intelligence service, the New York Times reported.
Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary said Monday the act was “state-sponsored hijacking … state-sponsored piracy,” and airline officials believe agents of the Belarusian KGB, its security agency, were aboard the plane. As many as three other passengers stayed behind in Minsk when the plane took off.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken called it “a shocking act” and demanded Protasevich’s immediate release.
European Union leaders will meet in Brussels to decide a response. Airlines, including Ryanair, one of Europe’s largest carriers, considered ending flights over Belarus.
Tadeusz Giczan, editor at NEXTA, the opposition site co-founded by Protasevich, tweeted that KGB agents were on the plane.
What happened to the Ryanair flight
(Times in GMT are approximate)
7:29 a.m.: Flight FR4978 departs Athens, Greece, bound for Vilnius, Lithuania.
9:30 a.m.: The plane enters Belarusian airspace.
9:46 a.m.: The plane is about 45 miles from Vilnius when Belarus air traffic control tells flight crew a bomb is on board. Controllers order it to land at the Minsk airport. The plane begins its turn as a Belarusian MiG-29 fighter jet escorts it down.
9:48 a.m.: The plane issues a transponder code for “general emergency” and begins its descent into Minsk.
10:16 a.m.: The plane lands and passengers are ordered off the aircraft. Security officials begin bomb search but no explosives are found. Journalist Roman Protasevich and his companion, identified as Sofia Sapega of Russia, are arrested.
5:47 p.m.: Plane takes off from Minsk.
6:26 p.m.: Plane lands in Vilnius.
Who is Alexander Lukashenko?
Lukashenko, 66, is Europe’s longest-serving ruler, in office in Belarus since 1994. He’s described as Soviet-era authoritarian, controlling all media within the country and jailing opponents and dissidents. He was reelected in August in a disputed election that resulted in mass protests around the country.
The United States, U.K., European Union and Canada froze the assets of nearly 90 Belarusian officials after the election. In 2005, President George W. Bush’s administration called Belarus “the last remaining true dictatorship in the heart of Europe.”
Who is Roman Protasevich?
Protasevich is a journalist, dissident and critic of Lukashenko and the government. He helped found and edit a site called Nexta on Telegram, a social media platform used by government opposition members.
Protasevich left Belarus in 2019 and has been living in Lithuania in exile. He was returning from a meeting with Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya in Greece when his flight was waylaid.
Last year’s widespread protests in Belarus were connected to NEXTA, which published videos and photos from the protests and served as the movement’s virtual headquarters. Police met protesters with violence, leading to nearly universal condemnation.
SOURCE USA TODAY Network reporting and research; The Associated Press; Flightradar24; maps4news.com/©HERE