Belarus forces Ryanair plane to land to arrest opposition blogger

Belarus forces Ryanair plane to land to arrest opposition blogger

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko ordered a Ryanair flight carrying a key opposition blogger and headed for Lithuania to land in Minsk, the Belarusian capital on Sunday, and detained him on his arrival, officials said and human rights activists.

Law enforcement has arrested activist Roman Protasevich, put on a wanted list after mass street protests last year following an election in which Lukashenko won a landslide victory.

The plane, flying over Belarus from Athens to Vilnius, had almost reached Lithuania when it changed direction and was escorted to Minsk with explosives on board, according to Flight Tracker Online and BelTA .

No explosives were found, BelTA said.

The Belarusian Department for Combating Organized Crime also reported that Protasevich had been arrested, but subsequently deleted the statement from its Telegram channel.

Ryanair and the Lithuanian Foreign Ministry made no immediate comment.

Lukashenko personally ordered the warplane to escort Ryanair’s Boeing to Minsk, the official BelTA news agency reported.

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 opened.

A spokeswoman for Lithuanian airport authorities told Reuters that the plane, which was due to land in Vilnius at 11 a.m. GMT, was diverted to Minsk due to a conflict between the crew and a passenger.

The plane was scheduled to land in Vilnius from Minsk at 3:00 p.m. GMT, she said.

Protasevich is one of the founders of the opposition news service NEXTA, a Telegram channel that has become one of the main sources of information on protests in Belarus. He is hostile to Lukashenko and helps coordinate the protests.

Belarusian opposition politician Svetlana Tikhanouskaya, 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. “