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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

EU Assails Belarus over Diversion of Plane, Detention of Journalist

By Ken Bredemeier May 23, 2021

European governments accused Belarus on Sunday of engaging in an act of state terrorism after it forced a commercial jetliner to make an emergency landing in Minsk after a purported bomb threat and then arrested an opposition blogger critical of authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko.

Raman Pratasevich, a former editor of the influential Telegram channels Nexta and Nexta Live, was detained by police after his Ryanair flight from Greece to Lithuania was diverted over Belarusian airspace when the Minsk government said Lukashenko ordered his military to scramble a MiG-29 fighter to escort the plane.

"I'm facing the death penalty here," a trembling Pratasevich was reported to tell a fellow passenger before Belarusian police led him away.

The Minsk government has accused Pratasevich of terrorism and provoking riots after the Nexta channels became one of the main conduits for organizing last year's anti-Lukashenko protests over election fraud.

Lukashenko won his sixth term in the August election with a claimed 80% of the vote, although many in the country accused him of widespread corruption in the election.

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said the Irish passenger jet had been hijacked and accused Lukashenko of a "reprehensible act of state terrorism." Morawiecki said he would demand new sanctions against Belarus at a European Council meeting on Monday.

British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said, "We are coordinating with our allies. This outlandish action by Lukashenko will have serious implications."

Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda wrote on Twitter, "Unprecedented event! The regime is behind the abhorrent action. I demand to free Roman (Raman) Protasevich urgently!"

Pratasevich was flying from Athens to Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, when the plane was diverted to Minsk.

Ryanair said in a statement that the flight crew of the diverted aircraft was notified by air traffic controllers in Belarus of "a potential security threat on board and were instructed to divert to the nearest airport, Minsk," although air traffic records show it was closer to Vilnius.

The airline said "passengers were offloaded 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 about five hours on the ground in Minsk.

The airline said nothing about Pratasevich's arrest.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement Sunday that the U.S. strongly condemned the diversion of the flight and the detention of Pratasevich.

"We are closely coordinating our response with our partners, including the EU and 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's statement said.

Miguel Berger, the German foreign ministry state secretary, demanded "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."

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said, "Any violation of international air transport rules must bear consequences."

Pratasevich had been in Athens covering a visit by Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, a former Belarusian presidential candidate who has declared herself the country's leader-in-exile because of widespread fraud during last year's elections. She called on the International Civil Aviation Organization to investigate the Sunday incident and the diversion of the Ryanair jet to Minsk.

She wrote on Twitter that Lukashenko's "regime endangered the lives of passengers onboard the plane. From now – no one flying over Belarus – can be secure. International reaction needed!"

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