The European Union and a host of member states have condemned Belarus for forcing a Ryanair jet to land at Minsk airport, where waiting police detained a prominent critic of the country’s autocratic president, Alexander Lukashenko.
Mr Lukashenko ordered a MiG-29 fighter jet to scramble and accompany the Ryanair plane to Minsk due to a supposed bomb threat to the airliner as it flew over Belarus en route from Greece to Lithuania, according to social media linked to the presidential administration.
Officials said no bomb was found onboard, but during security checks on passengers, police arrested activist and blogger Roman Protasevich, who was placed on a terrorist watchlist and accused of several crimes by Belarusian security services during their brutal crackdown on last year’s huge opposition protests against Mr Lukashenko’s 26-year rule.
European leaders reacted with outrage after the Ryanair flight was intercepted and the matter is set to be discussed at a European Council meeting in Brussels on Monday.
“The incident will not remain without consequences,” warned European Council president Charles Michel in a statement, saying he condemned the act “in the strongest possible terms”.
In a tweet Taoiseach Micheál Martin said “these unprecedented actions have caused widespread concern across the EU,” and they must be addressed at Monday’s meeting.
“It is utterly unacceptable to force a Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius to land in Minsk,” European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen wrote on Twitter.
“ALL passengers must be able to continue their travel to Vilnius immediately and their safety ensured. Any violation of international air transport rules must bear consequences.”
Journalist, blogger and activist Roman Protasevich, who ran an opposition social media Telegram channel called Nexta, was detained on arrival at the airport.
Ryanair said that its crew on the Vilnius-bound flight from Athens were notified by Belarus air traffic control about a “potential security threat on board and were instructed to divert to the nearest airport, Minsk”.
The airline said in a statement that the aircraft landed safely and passengers were off-loaded while security checks were completed by local authorities.
“Nothing untoward was found and authorities cleared the aircraft to depart together with passengers and crew after approximately five hours on the ground in Minsk,” it said.
The airline said the aircraft departed for Vilnius at 6.50pm GMT (8.50pm local time in Minsk) and landed safely at 7.25pm (9.25pm local time).
“Ryanair has notified the relevant national and European safety and security agencies and we apologise sincerely to all affected passengers for this regrettable delay which was outside Ryanair’s control,” it said.
The Ryanair statement made no reference to Mr Protasevich’s detention.
Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney said the reports of the Ryanair plane being forced to land to detain an opposition blogger were “extremely worrying.”
“We are in contact with the airline and EU colleagues,” he tweeted.
Minister for European Affairs Thomas Byrne said the situation was “of extreme concern” and that the Department of Foreign Affairs was engaging with the airline and EU colleagues.
He said that he had been updated about the situation by Ms Tikhanovskaya and Lithuania’s deputy foreign minister for European affairs Arnoldas Pranckevicius.
French foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said “the hijacking by the Belarusian authorities of a Ryanair flight is unacceptable. A firm and united response from Europeans is essential. All passengers on this flight, including any Belarusian oppositionists, must be allowed to leave the airport without delay.”
In Germany, foreign ministry state secretary Miguel Berger said: “We need an immediate explanation by the government of Belarus on the diversion of a Ryanair flight within the EU to Minsk and the alleged detention of a journalist.”
German foreign minister Heiko Mass called on Belarus to release journalist Roman Protasevich, reported to have been detained when the flight landed, and said there would have to be consequences from the EU.
“Diverting a flight between two EU states under the pretext of a bomb threat is a serious interference in civil aviation in Europe,” Mr Mass said in a statement. “Such an act cannot remain without clear consequences on the part of the European Union.”
On Sunday several EU leaders said the incident must be addressed at a European Council meeting on Monday, where Polish premier Mateusz Morawiecki called for discussion of “immediate sanctions” against Mr Lukashenko’s regime.
“Hijacking of a civilian plane is an unprecedented act of state terrorism. It cannot go unpunished,” he added.
Lithuanian president Gitanas Nauseda called on Belarus to release Portasevic, claiming that the Ryanair plan was directed to land “by force”.
The incident came amid continuing arrests of journalists and opposition figures in Belarus, where hundreds of thousands of people rallied against Mr Lukashenko last year after he claimed to have won an election that the West denounced as blatantly rigged.
The former Soviet state farm boss moved closer to Russia during the crisis and received promises of financial and security support from Moscow, which echoed his assertion that the protests were part of a western-backed plot to oust him.
Many of Mr Lukashenko’s most strident critics are now behind bars or in exile, including opposition leader, Ms Tikhanovskaya, who fled to neighbouring Lithuania to escape threats she received after claiming to be the rightful winner of last August’s vote.
“A week ago I was returning from Athens to Vilnius on the exact same flight. We met Roman Protasevich in Greece, he photographed our working visit. Seven days later, the [Lukashenko] regime... organised the hijacking of an entire civilian plane in order to take Roman hostage,” she said on Sunday.
“From now on, not a single person flying over Belarus can be sure of their safety. The regime is abusing the rules of air traffic to capture those who disagree with it.”
Protasevich faces the death penalty after he and the creator of Nexta, which exposed police brutality during anti-government protests last year in Belarus, were added to a list of individuals involved in terrorist activities in November.