US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Sunday berated Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko for allegations he personally ordered fighter jets to rush in as part of efforts to hijack a commercial airliner carrying a figure of opposition.
The Mig-29 fighters were believed to be responding to a bomb threat, but no bomb was ever found. The opposition figure was arrested in Minsk. Critics said the move amounted to a government-sanctioned hijacking.
“We strongly condemn the brazen and shocking act of the Lukashenka regime of hijacking a commercial flight and arresting a journalist,” Blinken tweeted. “We demand an international investigation and we are coordinating with our partners the next steps. The United States is on the side of the Belarusian people. “
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Raman Pratasevich, the 26-year-old journalist, faces charges he says could carry the death penalty. He was on a Ryanair flight from Athens to the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius when he changed course for Minsk. Flight tracking sites said the plane was about six miles from the Lithuanian border when it was hijacked.
A witness told the Belarusian department of Radio Free Europe that Pratasevich started to panic when the Ryanair flight changed course. When the plane arrived in Minsk, Pratasevich’s luggage was “thrown on the runway” and he was separated from the rest of the passengers, according to German newspaper Deutsche Welle.
“We asked him what was going on. A passenger said, according to the outlet. “He told us who he was and added: ‘A death penalty awaits me here. He was a little calmer, but shaking. “
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Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda called the incident a “state sponsored terrorist act”. He said the European Council would discuss the matter on Monday and propose banning Belarusian planes from European Union airports and “serious sanctions” against Lukashenko’s government.
Dominic Raab, British Foreign Secretary, said: “We are coordinating with our allies. This extravagant action by Lukashenko will have serious implications. “
Belarus has been rocked by protests since the August 9 elections that gave Lukashenko a victory with 80 percent of the vote, which many said was a rigged election.
The Belarusian presidential press service said the bomb threat was received as the plane flew over Belarusian territory. Officials later said no explosives were found.
Exiled opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya called on the International Civil Aviation Organization to open an investigation.
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“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. “
The Associated Press contributed to this report