The presidential press service said President Alexander Lukashenko personally ordered a MiG-29 fighter jet to accompany the Ryanair plane – traveling on Sunday from Athens, Greece, to Vilnius, Lithuania – until Minsk airport.
The Belarusian Interior Ministry said Raman Pratasevich was arrested at the airport. Pratasevich is the co-founder of the Nexta channel of the Telegram messaging app, which Belarus declared last year as “extremist” after it was used to help organize large protests against Lukashenko.
Pratasevich, who had fled the country for Poland, faces charges that can carry a prison sentence of up to 15 years.
The presidential press service said the bomb threat was received as the plane flew over Belarusian territory; Officials later said no explosives were found on board.
Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda demanded that Belarus liberate Protasevich.
“Unprecedented event! A civilian airliner flying to Vilnius was forcibly landed in #Minsk, ”Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda said on Twitter.
“The Belarusian political activist and founder of @NEXTA_EN was on the plane. He is stopped. The regime is behind the heinous action. I demand to release Roman Protasevic urgently! Nauseda added.
Unprecedented event! A civilian airliner flying in Vilnius was forcibly landed in #Minsk. Belarusian political activist and founder of @NEXTA_EN was on the plane. He is stopped. 🇧🇾 regime is behind the heinous action. I ask to release Roman Protasevič urgently!
– Gitanas Nausėda (@GitanasNauseda) May 23, 2021
He also urged NATO and the European Union to “react immediately to the threat posed by the Belarusian regime to international civil aviation” in a separate statement issued by his office.
“I will talk about it tomorrow at the EU summit in Brussels,” said Nauseda.
The European Union said on Sunday that all passengers aboard the Ryanair plane must be allowed to resume their journey immediately.
“ALL passengers must be able to continue their journey to Vilnius immediately and their safety ensured,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said on Twitter.
“Any violation of the rules of international air transport must have consequences,” she added.
BREAKDOWN! The regime has landed @Ryanair plane, which flew from Athens to Vilnius, in order to arrest the famous Belarusian journalist Roman Protasevich. In Belarus, he risks the death penalty. Belarus seized plane, endangered passengers, to crack down on opponent pic.twitter.com/TEv22to5XM
– Franc Viačorka (@franakviacorka) May 23, 2021
Exiled opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya called on the International Civil Aviation Organization to open an investigation.
“It is absolutely obvious that this is a special services operation aimed at hijacking a plane in order to detain activist and blogger Raman Pratasevich,” she said in a statement. “Not a single person flying over Belarus can be sure of their safety.”
Ryanair said the plane’s crew had been informed by Belarus of a potential threat to on-board safety and had been instructed to divert to the nearest airport, Minsk.
The plane landed safely, passengers were unloaded and security checks were carried out by local authorities, he said.
A member of the Nexta team, Tadeusz Giczan, said on Twitter that representatives of the Belarusian security agency were on the flight with Protasevich.
“Then when the plane entered Belarusian airspace, KGB officers started a brawl with the Ryanair crew, insisting on the presence of an IED on board,” he said. .
Last year Protasevich, 26, and Nexta co-founder Stepan Putilo, 22, were added to the list of “individuals involved in terrorist activities”.
The two bloggers – who live in Poland – were added to the list on the basis of previous charges of provoking mass unrest, an offense that could lead to 15 years in prison.
They also face charges of inciting social hatred against the government and law enforcement, and have been added to international lists of wanted people in Belarus and Russia, an ally of President Lukashenko.
Nexta Live and its sister channel Nexta – with nearly two million Telegram messenger subscribers – are prominent voices of the Belarusian opposition and have helped mobilize the protesters.
In October, Belarus called the Nexta Telegram channel and its logo “extremists” and ordered it to be blocked. Reposting information from channels is punishable by a fine.
Lithuania, the EU’s Baltic state, granted Protasevich refugee status following a bloody crackdown in Belarus after contested elections last August. Tikhanovskaya also fled to Lithuania and is still there.
Belarus has seen unprecedented mass protests after Lukashenko claimed a sixth term in August last year in a vote that the opposition and Western diplomats say was rigged.
Police cracked down on the protests, detaining some 30,000 people and beating many of them.
Although protests died down during the winter, Belarus continued to take action against the opposition and independent news media. Last week, 11 staff at the TUT.by news site were arrested by police.
The EU and the US have sanctioned Lukashenko and dozens of officials and businessmen linked to his government with asset freezes and visa bans.