President’s opponent arrested after plane diverted to Belarus over bomb threat

Raman Pratasevich being detained in Minsk Belarus in 2017

The move comes amid an intensifying crackdown following historic demonstrations that gripped the ex-Soviet country after a disputed presidential election past year.

Belarus' authoritarian leader Alexander Lukashenko declared himself the victor of an election in August to his sixth term.

"The plane was checked, no bomb was found and all passengers were sent for another security search", Nexta said.

In 2020, Protasevich and Nexta founder Stepan Putilo, 22, were added to Belarus's list of "individuals involved in terrorist activity". Mr. Protasevich had lived in Vilnius since November, she said.

Foreign Affair Minister, Simon Coveney has described as "extremely worrying" the fact that a Ryanair flight was grounded in Belarus with an opposition blogger detained.

Belarus forced a passenger plane en route from Athens to Vilnius to land in Minsk in order to arrest a journalist critical of the government.

Belarus' crackdown against the political opposition since last year's disputed presidential election has led to U.S. and European Union sanctions.

Protasevich had been in Athens covering a trip by the exiled leader of Belarus' democracy opposition, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who is now based in Lithuania.

"ALL passengers must be able to continue their travel immediately", he said.

The president of the European Union Commission Ursula Von Der Leyen called the move to divert the flight "utterly unacceptable" and warned it must bear consequences. "Any violation of worldwide air transport rules must bear consequences".

'We have already informed the Ryanair office and the International Civil Aviation Organisation, demanding to start an investigation into the incident and take measures up to the exclusion of Belarus from ICAO'. Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki called the incident a "hijacking" and called for immediate sanctions on Belarus.

Officials had yet to confirm whether Protasevich was onboard or had remained in detention in Belarus. "This is a reprehensible act of state terrorism", he said. It made no mention of Protasevich in the statement. The plane was then escorted by a Belarusian fighter jet to a Minsk airport.

Belarus a year ago designated Nexta an extremist organisation and has called for his extradition from Poland, where the channel's editorial team is based.

Belarus had also labelled the Nexta Telegram channels and its logo "extremist" and ordered it blocked.

The Telegram channel of Lukashenko's press service said the president gave the order to turn the flight around. It added that he also ordered a Mig-29 fighter jet to accompany the aircraft.

'It is absolutely obvious that this is an operation by the special services to hijack an aircraft in order to detain activist and blogger Raman Pratasevich, ' she said.

The opposition believes that Tikhanovskaya, who fled to neighbouring Lithuania after the election, was the true victor of last year's presidential vote. Belarus' opposition have said they fear he could now face the death penalty. "The worldwide community must take immediate steps that this does not repeat", Mr. Nauseda said.

The plane had nearly left Belarus air space but was forced to land in Minsk.

Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis said there were 171 passengers aboard the flight, majority Lithuanian nationals.

Christophe Deloire, the head of Reporters Without Borders, called the moves against "a new attempt to silence the most well-known independent media in Belarus", and called on the United Nations to act to ensure freedom of information.



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