- BBC News World
A plane connecting Greece to Lithuania was diverted on Sunday to Belarus, where a dissident journalist critical of the government of Alexander Lukashenko was arrested.
The Nexta channel said its former editor Roman Protayevich he was arrested when the plane landed in Minsk, the capital of Belarus.
Belarusian state media said the plane was hijacked due to a bomb threat, but no explosives were found.
And this Wednesday, in his first public statements on the subject, President Alexander Lukashenko has defended the plane’s hijacking and journalist’s detention, citing the bomb threat and saying Protasevich had ‘plotted a rebellion’.
The president assured that the measures respected international law and accused his critics of wanting to “stangle” the country.
He was referring with them to the reaction of several European countries, which on Sunday accused Belarus of “state terrorism” and called for sanctions.
European Union (EU) leaders considered it a “kidnapping” and held an emergency meeting in Brussels to discuss the matter.
During a meeting they agreed to expand the list of sanctions against Belarus and to close the airspace with this countryprohibiting its airlines – including the state-owned company Belavia – from flying over Community airspace.
In addition, they also asked EU companies to “avoid” flying over Belarus and demanded the “immediate release” of the journalist.
For his part, Ryanair chairman Michael O’Leary described what happened as a “state-sponsored kidnapping” and said he believed Belarusian security officers were traveling on the flight.
UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said he was “deeply concerned” by the interception of the plane and the arrest of Protasevich and called for a independent, full and transparent investigation.
Meanwhile, Russia, a traditional ally of Belarus, called on Monday “not to overreact”.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warned against overreacting to the incident.
“We prefer the approach of not assessing an incident on a whim, in a hurry, but on the basis of all available information,” Lavrov said Monday in a joint press conference with his Greek counterpart. Nikos Dendias in Sochi on May 24. broadcast live on the state network Rossiya 24.
“Especially since the representative of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Belarus made a detailed statement, stressing the willingness of the authorities to act transparently on this issue and to follow all international rules and ensure full transparency, including, if necessary, the acceptance of international experts,” the Russian foreign minister said.
On the other hand, the leader of the Belarusian opposition Svetlana Tikhanovskayabeaten by the president Alexander Lukashenko in last year’s election that many saw as fraudulent, he joined voices calling for Protasevich’s release.
Since the August 2020 elections, Lukashenko, 66, who has ruled the country since 1994, has lashed out at critical voices. Many opposition figures have been arrested or forced into exile, such as Tikhanovskaya.
How did they hijack the plane?
Flight FR4978 was en route from Athens to Vilnius in Lithuania when it turned east towards the Belarusian capital Minsk shortly before reaching the Lithuanian border.
In a statement, the airline Ryanair said that “Belarusian air traffic control informed the crew of a potential security threat and ordered them to divert to the nearest airport, Minsk”.
The flight path suggests the plane was actually closer to Vilnius than Misk at the time.
Ryanair said that already once landed nothing was found and that the aircraft was cleared to continue flying five hours later.
“Ryanair has informed national and European security agencies and we apologize to all passengers affected by this delay beyond Ryanair’s control.”
The airline never mentioned Protasevich, whose arrest was first reported by Nexta.
Nexta Editor-in-Chief, Tadeusz Giczantweeted the line from a passenger on the plane who said Protasevich told him that once he landed in Minsk he would be “executed”.
Belta, the Belarusian state news agency, said President Lukashenko personally gave the order after the bomb threat and that a MiG-29 military plane accompanied the Ryanair plane.
Condemnation in the West
The anger was immediately palpable and threatened to escalate.
Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda has accused Belarus of committing a “horrific act”.
The Minister of Foreign Affairs of Latvia, Edgars Rinkevicssaid Belarus’ action was “contrary to international law” and that the response must be “strong and effective”.
The Prime Minister of Poland, Mateusz Morawiecki, He noted, “The hijacking of a civilian airliner is an unprecedented act of state terrorism that must have consequences.
The head of diplomacy of the European Union, the Spaniard Joseph Borrellsaid Belarus should be responsible for the safety of all passengers on the plane.
Currently, EU sanctions on Belarus affect 88 countries and 77 entities, including President Lukashenko and his son and adviser Viktor Lukashenko, who are banned from entering EU territory and have had all their assets and assets frozen in the EU.
At the moment the details of the new sanctions are unknown but, before the start of the emergency summit called by the EU, the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, announced that they could reach the entire aviation sector of Belarus.
“This is outrageous behavior and Lukashenko and his regime must understand that this will have consequences,” he said, announcing that the EU has an economic and investment package that will remain frozen “until Belarus becomes democratic.”
Analysis by BBC Diplomatic Correspondent James Landale
We don’t yet know all the details of this story, but its implications could be huge.
There are questions about freedom in the sky: how vulnerable can other flights be to this kind of behavior? Some are already calling it an act of aggression or state terrorism, a form of kidnapping. Has passenger safety been compromised? What precedent does this set? Should flights avoid Belarusian airspace?
There are also questions about international law. How illegal was this, as many assume? And if so, what consequences should there be?
And there are also questions of freedom of opinion: will critics of other regimes fear that this could happen to them?
And there are also issues for international diplomacy. Politicians across Europe have already called on the EU and NATO to intervene and there are calls for more sanctions against the Belarusian government, whose legitimacy is questioned by many Western countries after the elections in Last year.
President Lukashenko is defined as the last dictator in Europe. Will the word “pirate” be added to your list of titles?
Who is Protasevich and what is Nexta
Nexta is an online media with a Telegram channel and a presence on Twitter and YouTube.
He played an important role for the Belarusian opposition during the elections and continued afterwards.
Tikhanovskaya said Protasevich, 26, who lives in Lithuania, left Belarus in 2019 and covered the 2020 presidential election with Nexta, after which they showed up. criminal charges against you.
The opposition leader said Protasevich could face the death penalty in Belarus because he is considered a “terrorist”.
Western leaders backed Tikhanovskaya, who claimed victory in the elections before being forced to leave the country and take refuge in Lithuania. She had run as a candidate after her husband was imprisoned and politically disqualified.
Tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets of Minsk for months last year angry that Lukashenko will be declared the winner.
Numerous cases of police brutality have been reported and there have been 2,700 charges this year alone.
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