Passengers reveal journalist's panic during plane 'hijacking'

What was behind a passenger plane's diversion to Belarus

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

A Greek national who was among the five passengers on board Sunday's Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius that did not reach its planned destination after the airliner was intercepted by a Belarusian warplane and forced to land in Minsk has told Kathimerini that he made a decision to get off the plane as the Belarus capital was the end destination of his journey.

Once on the ground, Belarus authorities arrested Protasevich and his girlfriend, Sofia Sapega.

Ryanair said Belarusian flight controllers told the pilots that there was a bomb threat against the jetliner and ordered them to land in Minsk.

Raab said Britain was working with allies on a coordinated response including further sanctions on Belarus which has been led by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko since 1994.

Belarusian state television on Monday aired a video of Protasevich, seen for the first time since his arrest.

At least three other people disembarked the flight in Minsk, assumed by Western countries to have been spies who had helped coordinate an operation to capture Protasevich.

Belarus has defended its actions and its Transport Ministry said Tuesday that it has invited representatives of the global aviation organization and USA and European Union authorities to investigate the flight's diversion.

Looking exhausted and seeming under duress, he said he was healthy and was confessing to charges of organizing mass disorder.


Ryanair's CEO, Michael O'Leary, on Monday condemned Belarus' actions, telling the Irish radio station NewsTalk "this was a case of state-sponsored hijacking". We demand his immediate release. Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum denied his group had any knowledge or connection to the matter.

Protasevich was a founder of the Telegram-based news channel NEXTA, which played a crucial role during the mass protests past year against Lukashenko. The channel and another NEXTA Live have over 2 million subscribers and during the protests helped coordinate demonstrations and published videos of them and of police violence that helped catalyze the peaceful uprising against Lukashenko.

The Belarusian authorities have unleashed a brutal crackdown on demonstrations.

Protasevich's father Dmitry Protasevich told AFP in Poland that he had not been able to contact his son since Saturday and that he did not appear himself in the video.

NEXTA, a news service where Protasevich worked before setting up his own widely followed blog, ran an interview with his mother, who said that as soon as she heard reports of a bomb scare on a flight, she knew it was a plot to capture him.

"I just want to say that my son is simply a hero, simply a hero", Natalia Protasevich said, weeping. "It's very hard for me", she said, her voice cracking.

In an updated statement on Monday, Ryanair said that it "condemns the unlawful actions of Belarusian authorities", calling it "an act of aviation piracy".

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the plane's diversion was "shocking", while Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda called it a "state-sponsored terror act".

Lukashenko, whose security services crushed months of pro-democracy demonstrations a year ago after an election opponents said was rigged, has so far shrugged off Western sanctions, which mostly consist of blacklists barring various officials from traveling or doing business in the United States and EU.

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