Belarusian authorities diverted a passenger jet and forced it to land, then arrested a journalist on board

Roman Protasevich
The authorities in Minsk, Belarus, detained journalist Roman Protasevich (pictured at a protest in 2017) after they diverted a jet and hauled him off the plane. AP Photo/Sergei Grits
  • A passenger plane flying from Athens to Lithuania was forced to land after a bogus security threat.
  • When it was grounded in Minsk, Belarusian police boarded the jet and arrested journalist Roman Protasevich.
  • The incident sparked international outrage and condemnation from the US, Australia, and EU member states.
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Belarusian authorities on Sunday sent a fighter jet to divert a Ryanair plane, citing a bogus security threat. But when the passenger plane was forced to land in Minsk, police officers boarded the jet and arrested Roman Protasevich, 26, a journalist known for vocally opposing Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko’s rule.

According to a statement seen by The New York Times, Ryanair said the pilots of flight FR4978 – which was flying from Athens to Lithuania – were told by Belarusian air traffic operators that there was a “potential security threat on board.” The pilots were then instructed to “divert to the nearest airport,” which was in Minsk.

Belarusian state media Belta said it was Lukashenko who gave an “unequivocal order” for the Ryanair plane to land in Minsk, citing a potential bomb threat.

But data on Flightradar.com showed that the plane was closer to its destination in Vilnius, Lithuania, than it was to Minsk and maps the sharp u-turn that the jet took to land in Belarus.

The BBC wrote that Belarus sent a MiG-29 fighter jet to escort the plane – which was carrying 171 passengers – to the Minsk airport. Authorities didn’t find a security threat on board, but Belarusian police instead hauled Protasevich off the flight.

The BBC reported that the plane landed in Lithuania seven hours after its scheduled arrival time.

According to Lithuanian news site Delfi News, when it was announced that the plane would be landing in Minsk, Protasevich looked fearful and told passengers on the plane that he was “facing the death penalty” there.

“He was not screaming, but it was clear that he was very much afraid. It looked like if the window had been open, he would have jumped out of it,” said passenger Edvinas Dimsa to the AFP.

Reuters spoke to a Lithuanian passenger who wanted to be known as Mantas, who said he saw Protasevich open an overhead locker. Mantas added that Protasevich then passed a laptop and phone to a female passenger who was traveling with him.

But Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda said on Sunday at a news conference attended by Reuters that the woman traveling with Protasevich did not make it back onto the plane when it departed from Minsk.

Protasevich was the co-founder and editor-in-chief of NEXTA, a news channel based in Poland that spread clips of mass protests against Lukashenko via encrypted messaging app Telegram. This was one of the only ways such information could be transmitted in the country after a government clampdown on mass media.

The Guardian wrote that before his arrest on Sunday, Protasevich had been branded as an extremist by the Belarusian government and was wanted on several charges – including terrorism and organizing riots – all of which he denies.

Thousands of Belarusians protested for several weeks last August after Lukashenko claimed he won the presidential election – and his sixth term – with 80% of the vote. Lukashenko has ruled Belarus since 1994 and is backed by the Russian government.

Journalist’s arrest sparks international condemnation from US, EU

Roman protasevich protest
A woman holds a poster reading ‘Where is Roman?!’ as she waits to see passengers disembark from the Ryanair plane in Vilnius, Lithuania. Mindaugas Kulbis/AP Photo

The incident has sparked anger from the US, Australia, and EU member states.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken strongly condemned Protasevich’s arrest and demanded his immediate release.

“This shocking act perpetrated by the Lukashenko regime endangered the lives of more than 120 passengers, including US citizens,” Blinken said in a statement on Sunday night.

He added that the US is “closely coordinating” its response with partners, including the EU, Lithuanian, and Greek officials.

“Given indications the forced landing was based on false pretenses, we support the earliest possible meeting of the Council of the International Civil Aviation Organization to review these events,” Blinken said.

“The United States once again condemns the Lukashenko regime’s ongoing harassment and arbitrary detention of journalists,” Blinken added.

Meanwhile, EU leaders are calling for strong action – including sanctions – to be taken against Belarus for the shocking diversion of the passenger plane and Protasevich’s arrest.

Ursula von der Leyen, head of the European Union’s executive European Commission, said on Sunday that the EUCO would discuss on Monday what actions to take.

“The outrageous and illegal behavior of the regime in Belarus will have consequences. Those responsible for the Ryanair hijacking must be sanctioned. Journalist Roman Protasevich must be released immediately,” von der Leyen said in a statement on Twitter.

“Hijacking of a civilian plane is an unprecedented act of state terrorism. It cannot go unpunished,” said Poland Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki. He added that he would petition for sanctions to be imposed against Belarus over the arrest.

The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) said in a tweet that it was “strongly concerned” about the “apparent forced landing” of the Ryanair flight. The ICAO added that this action might have violated the Chicago Convention, a 1944 accord outlining core guidelines for international aviation.

Sanctions were imposed last year by the UK and Canada against Belarus officials in a bid by a league of Western countries to take Lukashenko’s regime to task after he was accused of rigging the elections and repressing peaceful protests.