SAWT BEIRUT INTERNATIONAL

| 26 October 2021, Tuesday |

Roman Protasevich: Ryanair plane diverted to Belarus so ‘opposition blogger could be arrested’

A Ryanair flight has been diverted and forced to land in the Belarus capital Minsk so an opposition blogger could be arrested, it has been claimed.

Roman Protasevich was flying from Athens on a commercial Ryanair flight bound for Vilnius, Lithuania’s capital, when the aircraft was forced to change direction and land in Minsk.

The plane was escorted to the city by a warplane following reports it had explosives on board, according to an online flight tracker and Belarus state news agency BeITA.

However opposition in Belarus called the incident a hijacking operation by the government.Mr Protasevich was arrested after the plane touched down and no explosives were found.

He runs the opposition Telegram news channel NEXTA, which is hostile to Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko and has become one of the main sources of news about demonstrations in Belarus.

The blogger was placed on a wanted list after last year’s mass street protests following an election in which Mr Lukashenko, who has been in power since 1994, claimed a landslide victory.

Mr Protasevich had fled Belarus for Poland and faces charges that could carry a sentence of up to 15 years in jail.

A Lithuanian airport authority spokeswoman said the plane, which was scheduled to land in Vilnius at 12pm BST, was diverted to Minsk due to a conflict between the crew and a passenger.

Mr Lukashenko personally ordered a warplane to escort the Ryanair flight to Minsk, BeITA reported.

Lithuanian president Gitanas Nauseda said: “The Belarus regime is behind the abhorrent action.

“I demand to free Roman Protasevic urgently!”

He called on NATO and the EU to react to “Belarus’s threat to international civil aviation”.

His presidential adviser said the operation to land the plane in Belarus seemed pre-planned and the government knew who was onboard.

Carl Bildt, the European Council’s co-chair on foreign relations, said: “This is piracy – plain and simple.

“The Ryanair flight was just about to enter Lithuanian airspace.

“If there had been a real emergency Vilnius was clearly the most nearby airport.”

Exiled opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who Mr Protasevich supported, called on the International Civil Aviation Organisation to open an investigation. Sky News