As countries condemn Belarus flight diversion, critics accuse West of similar tactics

Flight FR4978

The Belarusian air force compelled the RyanAir flight to land in Minsk under the false pretense of a bomb threat. State media also reported that a Mikoyan Mig-29 fighter jet was utilised. He called it a "brazen and shocking act to divert a commercial flight and arrest a journalist".

European countries moved to isolate Belarus on Monday by cutting air ties after it provoked an worldwide outcry by forcing a commercial airliner to land so it could arrest an opposition activist.

Another Lithuanian passenger, named only as Mantas, told Reuters news agency that the moment the pilot announced the flight was being diverted to Minsk, Mr Protasevich stood up and opened an overhead locker containing his luggage. He said there's death penalty awaiting him there. Lithuania is a popular destination for Belarusian dissidents, and exiled opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya has made the Baltic country her home since fleeing Minsk a year ago.

He told Times Radio: "In 2014 the Russian government - the closest ally of Lukashenko's regime in Belarus - shot down a Malaysian aircraft and killed over 200 Dutch tourists".

North Atlantic Treaty Organisation demanded a probe into the "serious and risky incident" and alliance envoys were to discuss it on Tuesday.

In Minsk, the foreign ministry's spokesman said Belarus had acted in line with global regulations and a senior transport official read out what he said was the text of the bomb threat.

The incident is expected to be discussed by the EU leaders at the scheduled special meeting of the European Council taking place in Brussels on Monday and Tuesday.

But who is Mr Protasevich and why has he been arrested?

The incident comes as the European Union is set to discuss toughening its existing sanctions against Belarus, imposed over President Lukashenko's crackdown on opposition protesters, at a preplanned summit on Monday.

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The Lithuanian Foreign Ministry summoned Belarus's top representative in the country to demand the immediate release of all passengers and crew, it said in a statement. The International Civil Aviation Organization, an affiliate of the United Nations, has argued that a forced landing "could be in violation of the Chicago Convention", which protects the sovereignty of states' airspace.

The incident is certain to worsen already dire relations between the West and Belarus, which has been tightly controlled since 1994 by Mr Lukashenko. He proposed banning Belarusian planes from European Union airports and "serious sanctions" against the Belarusian government.

Passengers explained the shock of Platasevic when he noticed that the plane was heading for Minsk.

Protasevich, 26, worked for an online opposition news service NEXTA, a Telegram channel that broadcast footage of mass protests against Mr Lukashenko past year at a time when it was hard for foreign media to do so.

The journalist, 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.

From there he covered the events of the 2020 Belarus presidential election, after which he was charged with terrorism and inciting riots.

Though a string of junior officials praised the action, with RT editor-in-chief Margarita Simonyan saying that Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko "played it beautifully", President Vladimir Putin's spokesman declined to comment and state-run newspapers largely refrained from reporting the incident. No explosives were found, it said.

FILE - Belarus exiled opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya poses during an interview with AFP on the sideline of her visit to the International Film Festival and Forum on Human Rights (FIFDH) in Geneva, Switzerland, March 7, 2021.

"Roman was with us and after we arrived they took him and his girlfriend", Raselle said.

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