Journalist arrested after Belarusian military forced Ryanair plane to land

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The country’s opposition to a contested election last year has boosted US and EU sanctions and brought it closer to Russia

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A Ryanair plane landed in Lithuania after the Belarusian military forced it to divert to Minsk on Sunday, where authorities arrested a journalist who was covering protests against President Alexander Lukashenko.

The Boeing Co. 737-800 carrying dozens of passengers from Athens to Vilnius was diverted to the Belarusian capital under the escort of a Mig-29 fighter jet after its crew was informed by authorities in Minsk of ‘a “potential threat to safety on board”. said a spokesperson for Ryanair.

Authorities boarded the plane and arrested Raman Pratasevich, the former editor of one of Belarus’ most popular Telegram news channels. Pratasevich was not on the plane when it restarted, Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda said in a recorded statement.

An adviser to Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya said that 26-year-old Pratasevich was taken from the flight in Minsk by police. “At first he panicked, then calmed down a bit, but he was still shaking. He said he would face the death penalty here. He was taken aside, his belongings thrown on the runway, ”Franak Viacorka said on Twitter, citing passengers.

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A spokeswoman for the Interior Ministry in Minsk declined to comment.

The Lukashenko administration’s crackdown on the opposition since a contested election last year has boosted US and EU sanctions and brought it closer to Russia. Sunday’s events risk worsening the international isolation of a country sometimes referred to as Europe’s last dictatorship. Lukashenko is due to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin this week in Sochi, Rossiya-1 television reported on Sunday.

Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda called Ryanair’s forced landing an unprecedented “kidnapping of a person by military force” and urged NATO and the EU to respond to the threat posed by Belarusian leaders to the ‘civil Aviation.

“This is a serious and dangerous incident, which requires an international investigation,” NATO Secretary Jens Stoltenberg said on Twitter.

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The forced landing took place ahead of a two-day meeting in Brussels of EU leaders, who will discuss the consequences and possible sanctions, EU spokesman Barend Leyts said. It has already been condemned by EU countries, including Greece, Lithuania, Austria, the Czech Republic and France.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Mass denounced Belarus’ actions, claiming that forcing a plane to land under the pretext of a bomb threat was “serious interference in the movement of civil aviation”.

“Such an act cannot remain without consequences on the side of the European Union,” Maas said.

Mateusz Morawiecki, the Prime Minister of Poland neighboring Belarus, called for sanctions against Lukashenko for committing an “act of state terrorism”. Greece has called this “state hijacking”.

There were conflicting reports on how many people were on board. The foreign ministries of Greece and Lithuania said there were 171 passengers from at least 18 countries. Belarusian state news agency Belta, however, reported that there were 123 passengers.



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