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Iran Press TV

West threatens reprisals after Belarus diverts plane over bomb scare, detains dissident figure

Iran Press TV

Monday, 24 May 2021 8:05 AM

Belarusian authorities have diverted a Lithuania-bound passenger flight over the country's airspace following a reported bomb threat and then detained a dissident figure on board the plane, drawing fierce rebukes from US and European officials.

The Ireland-based Ryanair plane flying from the Greek capital of Athens to Vilnius – carrying more than 120 passengers, including Belarusian opposition activist and blogger Roman Protasevich who is wanted in Belarus for suspected "terrorist activities" – was ordered to make an emergency landing in Minsk on Sunday following the bomb threat that later proved to be a hoax.

After the search of the aircraft and the reported detention of Protasevich and a companion, the plane departed the Minsk airport for Lithuania following a 7-hour stop.

Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda also declared in a news conference late on Sunday that Protasevich's female companion had not re-embarked on the flight from Minsk to Vilnius.

Nauseda further demanded an international response, saying, "I call on NATO and EU allies to immediately react to the threat posed to international civil aviation by the Belarus regime."

Later, the Belarusian Interior Ministry confirmed the arrest of 26-year-old Protasevich, founder of Telegram's "Nexta" channel -- the opposition-led news outlet that challenged last year's reelection of President Alexander Lukashenko and published images of protest events across Belarus against him.

Protasevich is also wanted in Belarus on extremism charges and stands accused of organizing mass riots and of inciting social hatred.

Meanwhile, Belarusian news agency BelTA reported that Lukashenko had personally ordered a MIG-29 jet fighter to escort the Ryanair flight to Minsk.

In a statement on Monday, the Belarusian Foreign Ministry dismissed the "unfounded" accusations that Belarus deliberately diverted the plane, saying it acted legally following the bomb alert.

Decision to land made by Ryanair pilot: Belarus

The Minsk airport insisted that the decision to land in Belarus was made by the Ryanair captain and in accordance with international guidelines.

"Under the international guidelines, Minsk was the nearest airport, and according to these rules, the captain decided to land here. That is, it was the decision of the plane captain," said the shift chief at the Minsk airport Maxim Kiyakov during an interview with the local ONT broadcaster.

Ryanair said in a statement that the plane's crew was notified by Belarus of a potential security threat onboard and was instructed to divert to the nearest airport in Minsk.

The plane landed safely, passengers were offloaded, security checks were made by local authorities and the aircraft later resumed its journey to Vilnius, Ryanair added.

Russia says shocked by Western reaction

Russia on Monday said it was shocked by the Western outcry over Belarus's diversion of the passenger plane.

"We are shocked that the West calls the incident in Belarusian air space 'shocking,'" Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said on Facebook, accusing Western nations of "kidnappings, forced landings and illegal arrests".

US, EU slam flight diversion as 'hijacking'

The flight diversion, however, sparked a wave of strong condemnations by senior US and European officials who accused the Belarusian authorities of "hijacking" and interfering with the European Union's civil aviation.

While the US-led NATO military alliance slammed the flight diversion as "serious and dangerous," the EU insisted that "such an act cannot be left unanswered."

As European officials called for fresh sanctions against Belarus, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken described the forced landing and detention of the Belarusian dissident as a "shocking act" and demanded his immediate release, threatening that US President Joe Biden's administration was "coordinating with our partners on next steps."

Demanding a "full investigation," Blinken added in a statement, "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."

Chief of the EU's executive European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, also demanded Protasevich's immediate release and insisted that those responsible for "the Ryanair hijacking must be sanctioned." She further said EU leaders will meet in Brussels on Monday to discuss what action to take.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg further declared in a Twitter post that the incident was serious and dangerous and required an international investigation.

Moreover, Lithuania's Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis said he discussed the Ryanair flight diversion with US Assistant Secretary of State Philip Reeker, calling for a strong response by the Western alliance.

This is while Bob Menendez, chairman of the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, also issued a statement with the heads of seven European parliamentary foreign affairs panels, censuring the flight diversion as "an act of piracy" and demanded a ban on all over-flights of Belarus as well as the imposition of sanctions against Minsk by NATO and EU states and suspending Belarus' "ability to use Interpol."

Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who like Protasevich now operates from Lithuania, urged the UN aviation agency, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), to expel Belarus.

ICAO, meanwhile, expressed strong concerns over the incident, which might have breached the Chicago Convention underpinning civil aviation. The global airline industry body IATA also called for a full investigation.

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