Western Nations Condemn Belarus over "Hijacking," Arrest of Opposition Leader
A passenger airplane heading to Lithuania from Greece landed briefly in Belarus on Sunday.
While the plane was in Belarusian airspace, air traffic controllers told the pilot there was a bomb threat against the plane. They asked the pilot to change direction and land at the airport in Minsk. A military plane also flew next to the Ryanair airplane and guided it to the airport.
On board was 26-year-old Raman Pratasevich. He is an activist and reporter who helped organize protests against Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko.
Pratasevich and his Russian girlfriend were taken off the plane in Minsk. Officials have not said where they are being held. No bomb was found and the plane was then permitted to continue on to Lithuania.
Passengers told reporters after landing in Lithuania that Pratasevich knew he was the reason for the change of direction in Belarus. One passenger told the Reuters news agency that Pratasevich started giving away things like his computer as soon as the pilot told them the plane would land in Minsk.
Michael O'Leary is the head of Ryanair which operated the air plane. He said he believed that Belarus security agents had been on the plane and followed Pratasevich from Athens, Greece.
International reactions to the forced landing were strong and immediate.
The U.S Secretary of State Antony Blinken called the incident "shocking" and asked for Pratesevich's release.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen called it a "hijacking," and Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda described the incident as a "state-sponsored terror act."
The EU, which has tried to encourage democracy and attempted to reduce Russian influence in Belarus, is now considering even stronger measures. Some EU leaders called for banning Belarus' national airline or excluding the nation from sports events. EU members Latvia and Lithuania, along with Britain, went ahead with instructions for their airlines to avoid Belarusian airspace.
Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov was the only voice supporting Belarus' action. He said the incident needs to be investigated with clear minds after some time passes.
Why did Belarus do it?
Alexander Lukashenko came to power in 1994 after the end of the old Soviet Union.
In 2020, Lukashenko won another election but opposition groups said the vote was corrupt. Months of protests followed. More than 34,000 people have been arrested for expressing their views against Lukashenko.
Pratasevich created a channel on the online messaging service Telegram and helped organize protests. Nearly 2 million people in the country of 9.3 million follow the channel. The Belarus government called the channel "extremist" and charged Pratasevich with inciting mass riots. He could face 15 years in prison if convicted of the charge.
The rights group Amnesty International said the international community needs to make sure this method of silencing "dissenting voices is never repeated."
I'm Dan Friedell.