The Belarusian regime scrambled its air force on Sunday to divert a Vilnius-bound Ryanair flight to Minsk in order to arrest an opposition journalist.
The Ryanair flight from Athens with 171 passengers was to arrive in Vilnius at 13:00 on Sunday, but was forced to turn back before crossing the Lithuanian border and land in the Belarusian capital. Minsk Airport told the Interfax news agency that it had received a report about a bomb onboard.
However, Lina Beišienė, a spokeswoman for the Lithuanian Airports, told BNS that she was informed the plane was grounded due to a conflict between passengers and the flight crew. Lithuania has not received any information about a bomb or any other details from Belarus, she added.
Belarusian opposition figure Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who is currently in exile in Vilnius, released a statement, saying that the flight was grounded in order to arrest Belarusian opposition activist and blogger Roman Pratasevich, an editor of the opposition Telegram channel Nexta.
“It is clear that the operation by the [Belarusian] special forces to take over the plane was aimed at detaining the activist and blogger Pratasevich,” Tikhanovskaya's office said in the statement.
According to her adviser Franak Viachorka, Belarus used a fighter jet in order to ground the Vilnius-bound plane.
“This is a shock, horror. The plane from Athens to Vilnius was hijacked with an MiG-29 fighter,” he told BNS, confirming that Pratasevich has been arrested.
“They scrambled a military fighter jet MiG-29, the Blearusian dispatcher instructed the plane to change course and fly to Minsk Airport, purportedly due to some threat of explosives. Then they conducted a repeated security check of passengers, inspected the aircraft and, as the passengers were disembarking from the plane, Pratasevich was detained,” Viachorka is quoted by BNS.
“They hijacked the plane like Somali pirates,” he added.
“From now on, no person flying over Belarus can be assured of their security. The regime is abusing aviation rules in order to kidnap those who disagree with it,” Tikhanovskaya said in the statement.
Her office has informed both Ryanair and the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) about the incident, demanding an investigation and sanctions against Belarus, it said. The country should be expelled from the ICAO, according to Tikhanovskaya.
In a written comment, Ryanair told LRT.lt that the Belarusian authorities instructed for the plane to be diverted to Minsk due to “potential security threat inside the plane”.
“The plane’s crew received a message from the Belarusian air traffic control (ATC) about a potential security threat inside the plane and were instructed to divert the aircraft to the nearest airport – Minsk,” Ryanair said.
However, according to data from Flightradar24, the aircraft was closest to the international Vilnius airport, which was just 77 kilometres away. However, before being diverted to Minsk, the plane was at a higher altitude than on a regular approach to Vilnius.
A former news photographer, Pratasevich fled Belarus in 2019 and was active in reporting on the 2020 presidential election on his Nexta channel on Telegram used by the country's opposition. The Belarusian security service, KGB, has listed him as a terrorist.
Belarus' strongman leader Alexander Lukashenko claimed landslide victory in the election last August, a claim that the opposition and international observers dispute. His main rival Svetlana Tikhanovskaya was forced to flee to Vilnius last August in order to escape persecution.
Since then, Lukashenko's regime has unleashed violent crackdown on opposition protests that erupted across the country.
'Reckless and lawless'
Lithuania's Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis said the incident was “disconcerting”.
“Disconcerting news about the forced landing of an international flight from Athens to Vilnius in Minsk. We are working with international partners to ensure the safe return of passengers to Vilnius,” he posted on Facebook.
Linas Linkevičius, a diplomat and Lithuania's former foreign minister, called the incident “reckless and lawless” operation by the Belarusian special service”. “One can't use airspace controlled by regime criminals,” he tweeted.
Lithuanian President Gitanas Nausėda said on Sunday that Pratasevich had asylum in Lithuania and demanded that he be immediately released.
“I demand that the Belarusian regime immediately release the detained person and allow him and all the other passengers to continue their journey to Vilnius. I am calling on our NATO and EU allies to react to the threat that the Belarusian regime poses to international civil aviation. The international community must immediately take action so that similar incidents do not happen again. I will raise this issue at the EU Council tomorrow in Brussels,” Nausėda said in a statement circulated by his office.
Asta Skaisgirytė, chief foreign policy adviser to the Lithuanian president, said that Belarus used two military aircraft, a MiG-29 fighter jet and a Mi-24 helicopter, in the operation, which was likely staged by the Belarusian KGB.
Plane arrives in Vilnius
The plane took off again later in the evening. "The plane has taken off. Most passengers are on board. Waiting for it to land in Vilnius in 20 mins," Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis tweeted at 20:59. "Forced landing, kidnapping a journalist & holding more than 100 passengers hostage was a heinous crime against international community & civilized world. It will not go unpunished."
He later told reporters that the incident was "a state-initiated terrorist act against the international community". In the joint press conference, President Gitanas Nausėda said "tough" sanctions would target Belarus if the regime didn't release Pratasevich.
"It could include recognising the Belarusian airspace as unsafe for civilian aviation, [meaning] that the aircraft of Belavia [Belarusian state-owned airline] would lose the right to land at airports of EU and NATO [member states]," said Nausėda.
The flight arrived in Vilnius at around 21:30 on Sunday. People bearing Belarusian white-red-white flags gathered at the Vilnius international airport to greet the arrivals. During a press conference at the airport, Prime Minister Ingrida Šimonytė said the police will gather statements from some of the passengers already the same evening to assist a pre-trial investigation.
"This cannot remain without an answer," she said, adding that the incident was a terrorist act.
The plane arrived in Vilnius without Pratasevich and his girlfriend, as well as without four Russian nationals, according to reports by the Belarusian opposition. The Lithuanian authorities are yet to confirm which of the passengers remained in Minsk.
The Lithuanian Prosecutor General's Office also announced on Sunday it had launched a pre-trial investigation into aircraft hijacking by the Belarusian regime.
“A pre-trial investigation into aircraft hijacking and prohibited treatment of people under international law has been launched,” Elena Martinonienė, head of communications at the General Prosecutor’s Office, told BNS.