A A Ryanair plane from Greece to Lithuania was ordered to land in Minsk on Sunday, where Belarusian authorities arrested a journalist.
The move drew international condemnation, with Foreign Minister Dominic Raab saying he was “alarmed” by the actions of the Belarusian government of President Alexander Lukashenko, who is a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“We are working in coordination with our allies. This extravagant action by Lukashenko will have serious implications, ”he tweeted.
Germany calls for an immediate explanation and the Polish Prime Minister calls it “a reprehensible act of state terrorism”.
Lithuania, a member of the EU, urged the European Union and NATO to react.
The plane, flying from Athens to Vilnius, had almost reached Lithuania when it changed direction and was escorted to Minsk, the Belarusian capital, after reporting it had explosives on board.
Belarusian law enforcement officials picked up activist Roman Protasevich, 26, from the plane and arrested him.
He was placed on a wanted list after street protests last year following a presidential election in which Lukashenko was declared the winner but opponents complained of electoral fraud.
Lukashenko personally ordered a warplane to escort the Boeing to Minsk, BelTA reported. No explosives were found, he said.
Lithuania and Russia’s traditional ally, Belarus, are neighbors and former members of the Soviet Union. Lithuania is now a member of the European Union, Belarus is not.
Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda called for an international response.
“I call on NATO and EU allies to react immediately to the threat posed to international civil aviation by the Belarusian regime. The international community must take immediate action so that this does not happen again, ”Nauseda said.
Lithuanian presidential adviser Asta Skaisgiryte said the operation to forcibly land the plane carrying around 170 people from 12 countries appeared to be preplanned.
She said Belarusian intelligence knew who was on board the plane, which was forced to land using a MIG-29 fighter jet. Protasevich had been living in Vilnius since November, she said.
A spokeswoman for Lithuanian airport authorities told Reuters that the plane, which was due to land in Vilnius earlier on Sunday, was now due to land later today.
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.
The delay was regrettable and beyond his control, he added.
The Belarusian Department for Combating Organized Crime also reported that Protasevich had been arrested, but later deleted the statement from its Telegram channel.
In power since 1994, Lukashenko launched a violent crackdown on street protests in 2020. Around 35,000 people have been arrested since August, according to human rights groups. Dozens were sentenced to prison terms. Authorities say more than 1,000 criminal cases have been initiated.
Protasevich is one of the founders of the opposition news service NEXT, a Telegram channel that has become one of the main sources of information on the protests in Belarus. He is hostile to Lukashenko and helps coordinate the protests.
Belarusian opposition politician Svetlana Tsikhanouskaya, Lukashenko’s main rival in the last election, said Belarusian authorities “were endangering the safety of passengers on board and all civil aviation to punish man who was editor in chief of the largest independent channel of Belarus Telegram. “.