Authorities in Belarus scrambled a fighter jet and flagged what turned out to be a false bomb alert to force a Ryanair plane to land on Sunday and then detained an opposition-minded journalist who was on board, drawing criticism from across Europe.
In the dramatic incident, a Soviet-era MiG-29 fighter jet escorted Ryanair-operated passenger plane flying from Athens to Lithuania. The plane was suddenly diverted to Minsk, the capital of Belarus, where authorities detained journalist Roman Protasevich.
Data from the flightradar24.com website showed the plane was diverted just two minutes before it was due to cross into Lithuanian airspace. After several hours in Minsk, the plane took off again for Vilnius, a top EU official said.
EU member state Lithuania, where Protasevich is based, urged the European Union and NATO to respond. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said in a Tweet that the incident was serious and dangerous and required an international investigation.
Poland's prime minister called it a "reprehensible act of state terrorism" and said he was pushing for a summit of EU leaders this week to discuss immediate sanctions against Minsk.
Germany called for an immediate explanation, and Ursula von der Leyen, the head of the EU's executive European Commission, said Belarus's action was "utterly unacceptable."
British foreign minister Dominic Raab said there would be serious implications for what he called "outlandish action." Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who like Protasevich operates from Lithuania, called on the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) to kick Belarus out of the organization.
The incident is certain to worsen already dire relations between the West and Belarus, which has been tightly controlled since 1994 by President Alexander Lukashenko.
Opponents accuse him of rigging a presidential election in his own favor last year and of then cracking down violently on the opposition. He denies electoral fraud.
APPEAL TO NATO
Ryanair said in a statement that the plane's crew was notified by Belarus of a potential security threat on board and were instructed to divert to the nearest airport, Minsk.
The plane landed safely, passengers were offloaded and security checks were made by local authorities, it said, saying it expected the aircraft to resume its journey later on Sunday.
Protasevich, 26, worked for an online opposition news service NEXTA, a Telegram channel that broadcast footage of mass protests against Lukashenko last year at a time when it was hard for foreign media to do so.
Protasevich, who now works for a different Telegram channel called Belamova and who describes himself on Twitter ironically as the first "journalist-terrorist" in history, is based in Lithuania.
He is wanted in Belarus on extremism charges and stands accused of organizing mass riots and of inciting social hatred, allegations he denies.
Belarusian news agency BelTA reported that Lukashenko had personally ordered the warplane to escort the Ryanair plane to Minsk. No explosives were found, it said.
Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda called for an international response.
"I call on NATO and EU allies to immediately react to the threat posed to international civil aviation by the Belarus regime. The international community must take immediate steps that this does not repeat," Nauseda said.
Lithuanian presidential adviser Asta Skaisgiryte said the operation to force the plane carrying around 170 people from 12 countries to land seemed to be pre-planned.
The Belarusian department for organized crime control reported that Protasevich had been detained before deleting the statement from its Telegram channel.
Around 35,000 people have been detained in Belarus since August, human rights groups say. Dozens have received jail terms. Authorities say that more than 1,000 criminal cases have been launched.
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