EU to impose new sanctions on Belarus after Ryanair hijacking

EU to impose new sanctions on Belarus after Ryanair hijacking: Bloc to ban ‘rogue state’ from using its airspace and airports and demand immediate release of regime critic

  • EU leaders agreed new sanctions against Belarus, including a ban on the use of EU air space and airports 
  • At a crunch summit, the 27-nation bloc also demanded the immediate release of Roman Protasevich
  • Dissident journalist Protasevich, 26, was arrested after a Ryanair flight to Lithuania was diverted to Minsk
  • Western outrage over hijacking is growing – as Protasevich told state media he would ‘confess’ to crimes

EU leaders tonight agreed new sanctions against Belarus, including a ban on the use of EU air space and airports after the ‘rogue state’ brazenly hijacked a Ryanair passenger plane to arrest a dissident journalist.

At a crunch summit, the 27-nation bloc also demanded the immediate release of Roman Protasevich, an opposition blogger who has been described as the ‘private enemy’ of Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko, and his Russian girlfriend Sofia Sapega, who was also hauled off the plane.

The EU leaders decided to slap individual sanctions on officials linked to the operation and called on the International Civil Aviation Organisation to start an investigation into the unprecedented move.

Western outrage is growing over the forced diversion of a passenger jet en route to Lithuania from Greece to Minsk Airport by the Belarusian regime on the pretext of a bomb scare – all to arrest the 26-year-old journalist.

The leaders called on their council ‘to adopt the necessary measures to ban overflight of EU airspace by Belarusian airlines and prevent access to EU airports of flights operated by such airlines.’ 

The text was endorsed quickly by leaders determined to oppose a ‘strong reaction’ to the incident because of the ‘serious endangering of aviation safety and passengers on board by Belarusian authorities,’ according to an EU official with direct knowledge of the discussions who spoke anonymously.

However, the Ryanair hijacking was openly backed by Russia, whose foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said Belarus was taking an ‘absolutely reasonable approach’ to the detention of the journalist. 

Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova also mocked the Western indignation at the alleged hijacking, writing on Facebook she was ‘shocked that the West calls the incident in Belarusian air space ‘shocking” and accusing Western nations of ‘kidnappings, forced landings, and illegal arrests’. Moscow and Minsk have close political, economic and military ties, and Lukashenko has relied on Russian support amid Western sanctions.

Lukashenko, the so-called last strongman of Europe, appears to have used the hijacking as a pretext for another assault of dissent in Belarus after the dictator on Monday signed a ‘repressive’ law sharply restricting news media activities and allowing them to be shutdown without a court hearing. 

It comes as a brief video of Protasevich, a blogger who founded Poland-based opposition news outlet Nexta and broadcast footage of huge demonstrations which erupted across Belarus last year, was shown on Belarusian state TV tonight in which he said he would ‘confess’ to alleged crimes. 

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, center, speaks with French President Emmanuel Macron during a round table meeting at an EU summit in Brussels


At a crunch summit, the 27-nation bloc also demanded the immediate release of Roman Protasevich, an opposition blogger who has been described as the ‘private enemy’ of Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko

The airliner full of tourists made an emergency landing at Minsk Airport yesterday after being escorted by a MiG-29 fighter jet amid reports of a bomb on board 

Ryanair flight FR4978 had been flying from Athens in Greece to Vilnius in Lithuania when it was escorted by a Soviet-era MiG-29 fighter jet to Belarus amid fake reports of an IED on board. It was forced to make an emergency landing at Minsk Airport, where authorities arrested dissident journalist Roman Protasevich

Protasevich, 26, has long been a thorn in the side of Belarus’s hardline dictator Alexander Lukashenko.

He worked as an editor at the Poland-based Nexta Live channel, which is based on the Telegram messenger app and has over 1 million subscribers. 

The channel, which is openly hostile to Lukashenko, played an important role in broadcasting huge opposition protests against the President last year.

Nexta also helped coordinate those same protests, which were sparked by anger over what the opposition said was a rigged presidential election. 

The channel’s footage, which showed how harshly police cracked down on demonstrators, was used widely by international media at a time when the Belarusian authorities were reluctant to allow foreign media in.

In November Protasevich published a copy of an official Belarusian list of terrorists on which his name figured. 

The listing said he was accused of organising mass riots while working at Nexta. He also stands accused of disrupting social order and of inciting social hatred. He regards the allegations, which could see him jailed for years, as unjustified political repression.

Protasevich fled Belarus for Poland in 2019 due to pressure from the authorities, according to Media Solidarity, a group that supports Belarusian journalists. 

He moved his parents to Poland too after they were put under surveillance. He later relocated to Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, where opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya is also based.

Protasevich is currently editor-in-chief of a Belarusian political outlet hosted on the Telegram messaging app called ‘Belarus of the Brain’ which has around a quarter of a million subscribers.

He was flying back to Vilnius from Greece where he had spent time taking photographs of a visit there by Tsikhanouskaya. He had posted the pictures to social media before flying back. 

Sitting at a table with his hands folded in front of him and speaking rapidly, Protasevich said he was in satisfactory health and said his treatment in custody was ‘maximally correct and according to law.’ He added that he was giving evidence to investigators about organising mass disturbances.

Earlier, the Belarus Interior Ministry said Protasevich was being held in Minsk and dismissed unconfirmed reports he was hospitalised with a heart condition. ‘The administration of the institution has not received any complaints about his health,’ the ministry said on its Telegram channel. 

Exiled opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who has previously appeared in a similar video published by state media in which she urged her supporters not to protest after last year’s election, said the video was made under ‘physical and moral pressure’ and called for his ‘immediate’ release. EU leaders have agreed new sanctions against Belarus, including a ban on the use of EU air space and airports.

Protasevich, who both fled to Europe, was last year added to Belarus’s list of ‘individuals involved in terrorist activity’. In Minsk, he faces charges of causing mass unrest, an offence punishable by up to 15 years in jail.   

Ms Tsikhanouskaya earlier sparked fears that she Protasevich was likely in ‘awful circumstances’ and being tortured, telling Sky News: ‘We’re really afraid, not only for his freedom but for his life.’ 

Ryanair said Belarusian flight controllers told the crew there was a bomb threat against the plane as it was crossing through Belarus airspace on Sunday and ordered it to land. 

A Soviet-era MiG-29 fighter jet was scrambled to escort the plane in a brazen show of force by Lukashenko, who has ruled the country with an iron fist for over a quarter-century. Belarus authorities then arrested the 26-year-old activist, journalist and prominent Lukashenko critic. 

Protasevich and his Russian girlfriend were taken off the plane shortly after it landed, and authorities haven’t said where they’re being held. Ryanair Flight FR4978, which began in Athens, Greece, was eventually allowed to continue on to Vilnius, Lithuania.

US President Joe Biden was briefed on the incident and National Security adviser Jake Sullivan raised the issue in his call with the secretary of the Russian Security Council, said White House press secretary Jen Psaki. She added the administration condemned what she called the ‘shocking act’ of diverting a flight to detain a journalist.

‘It constitutes a brazen affront to international peace and security by the regime. We demand an immediate international, transparent and credible investigation of this incident,’ she said, adding the US was in touch with NATO, the EU, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, among others about next steps.

EU leaders were particularly forceful in their condemnation of the arrest and the move against the plane, which was flying between two of the bloc’s member nations and was being operated by an airline based in Ireland, also a member.

The bloc summoned Belarus’ ambassador ‘to condemn the inadmissible step of the Belarusian authorities’ and said in a statement the arrest was yet again ‘another blatant attempt to silence all opposition voices in the country.’

President Gitanas Nauseda of Lithuania urged the EU to take ‘clear actions in order to change the pattern of behavior of this very dangerous regime’.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel condemned the ‘unprecedented action’ of the Belarusian authorities and demanded that Protasevich and his girlfriend, Sofia Sapega, be released immediately.

Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis said ‘the scandalous incident in Belarus shows signs of state terrorism and it’s unbelievable,’ while EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said it amounted to a ‘hijacking.’

EU leaders have tried to bring Belarus closer to the bloc – to encourage democratic reforms and reduce the influence of Russia – but have failed so far. Ahead of their summit, some EU leaders threatened more sanctions – from scrapping landing rights in the bloc for Belarus’ national carrier Belavia to exclusions from sports events.

Without waiting for the EU, Latvia’s airBaltic said it would avoid Belarusian airspace, and Lithuania’s government said it would instruct all flights to and from the Baltic country to avoid Belarus as well starting Tuesday.

British Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said he instructed the UK Civil Aviation Authority ‘to request airlines avoid Belarusian airspace in order to keep passengers safe.’ He added he was suspending the permit allowing Belavia to operate in the UK.

Earlier, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said it was ‘very difficult to believe’ the seizure of Mr Protasevich from the flight could have taken place ‘without at least the acquiescence of the authorities in Moscow’.

He said that although the situation was not yet clear, the relationship between Minsk and Moscow suggested Russian leaders may have been aware of the plans in advance.

In the Commons, he said: ‘It’s very difficult to believe that this kind of action could have been taken without at least the acquiescence of the authorities in Moscow, but, as I say, it’s unclear as yet.’

Speaking to reporters later, he was asked why he believed it could not have taken place without Russia being aware, and Mr Raab replied: ‘Based on all the circumstances. But we don’t know – it is just the proximity of the relationship between Minsk and Moscow.’

Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy ordered officials to move to cut the air link with Belarus and ban Ukrainian flights via the neighbor’s airspace.


Opposition journalist Roman Protasevich’s girlfriend Sofia Sapega who was also detained

Aviation experts have claimed that Belarus threatened to shoot down the Athens to Vilnius Ryanair flight unless it did not land immediately (pictured: a MiG-29 fighter jet involved in the incident arriving back at base in Belarus). Their presence has stoked fears of Russian secret services involvement in a murky operation to arrest opposition journalist Roman Protasevich, 26, a passenger on the plane who was detained with his girlfriend Sofia Sapega, 23, in Minsk

Opposition journalist Roman Protasevich, 26, (pictured after he was separated from other passengers) was hauled off the plane and arrested with his Russian girlfriend Sofia Sapega, 23, after the flight from Greece to Lithuania made the emergency landing in Minsk

Lukashenko ‘has turned Belarus into North Korea in Europe’: Backlash to hijacking ramps up as West summons Belarus ambassadors and new sanctions are prepared 

Berlin, London and Brussels summoned the Belarusian ambassadors, as exiled opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya called for an independent probe, new sanctions and for Minsk to be excluded from international aviation bodies.

‘An act of state terrorism was carried out and now any passengers flying over Belarus in a civilian aircraft will be in danger,’ Tikhanovskaya told reporters in Vilnius.

‘The regime has turned our country into North Korea in the middle of Europe,’ she said.

The EU and other Western countries have already imposed a wide range of sanctions on Lukashenko’s government over a brutal crackdown on opposition demonstrations that followed his disputed re-election to a sixth term last August.

Together with co-founder Stepan Putilo, Protasevich until recently ran the Nexta telegram channel that helped organise protests that were the biggest challenge to Lukashenko’s rule since he took power in the ex-Soviet country in 1994.

Belarus insisted it had acted legally over the grounding of the Ryanair jet, accusing the West of making ‘unfounded accusations’ for political reasons.

Its air force chief said the plane’s captain had decided to land in Belarus ‘without outside interference’ and that the pilot could have chosen to go to Ukraine or Poland.

A senior Belarusian transport official said the authorities received a letter claiming to be from Hamas threatening to blow up the plane over Vilnius unless the EU renounced support for Israel.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel dismissed Minsk’s explanations as ‘completely implausible’ as the EU pushed for a probe by the International Civil Aviation Organization. The ICAO, a UN agency, is to meet on Thursday.

United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres backed calls for a ‘full, transparent and independent investigation in this disturbing incident’.

The US and the EU have imposed sanctions on top Belarusian officials amid months of protests, which were triggered by Lukashenko’s reelection to a sixth term in an August 2020 vote that the opposition rejected as rigged. More than 34,000 people have been arrested in Belarus since then, and thousands beaten.

The Belarusian Foreign Ministry bristled at what it described as ‘belligerent’ EU statements, insisting Minsk acted ‘in full conformity with international rules.’

It ordered all Latvian diplomats out of the country after the Belarusian flag was replaced Monday with the white-and-red one used by the opposition at the world ice hockey championship in Riga, Latvia. The event was moved from Minsk amid the international outcry over the crackdown.

Lufthansa said a flight from Minsk to Frankfurt with 51 people aboard was delayed Monday following a ‘security warning.’ It was allowed to depart after the plane, passengers and cargo were searched.

On Sunday, flight tracker sites indicated the Ryanair flight was about 10 kilometers (6 miles) from the Lithuanian border when it was diverted. There were conflicting reports on what exactly happened.

Belarusian transport ministry official Artem Sikorsky said the Minsk airport had received an email about the bomb threat from the Palestinian militant group Hamas.

Lukashenko’s press service said he had ordered a fighter jet to accompany the plane after being told of the bomb threat. Deputy air force commander Andrei Gurtsevich told Belarusian state TV that the Ryanair crew decided to land in Minsk, adding that the fighter jet was sent ‘to ensure a safe landing.’

But Ryanair said in a statement that Belarusian air traffic control instructed the plane to divert to the capital. The plane was searched, and no bomb was found.

Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary described the move as ‘a case of state-sponsored hijacking . state-sponsored piracy.’ In an apparent reference to the Belarusian security agency that still goes under its Soviet-era name KGB, O’Leary he told the Irish radio station Newstalk that he believes ‘some KGB agents offloaded from the aircraft’ in Minsk.

Of the 126 people aboard the flight initially, only 121 made it to Vilnius, according to Rolandas Kiskis, chief of criminal police bureau in the Lithuanian capital where an investigation investigation has begun.

Passengers described Protasevich’s shock when he realised the plane was going to Minsk.

‘I saw this Belarusian guy with girlfriend sitting right behind us. He freaked out when the pilot said the plane is diverted to Minsk. He said there’s death penalty awaiting him there,’ passenger Marius Rutkauskas said after the plane finally arrived in Vilnius.

‘We sat for an hour after the landing. Then they started releasing passengers and took those two. We did not see them again.’

Protasevich was a co-founder of the Telegram messaging app’s Nexta channel, which played a prominent role in helping organize the anti-Lukashenko protests.

Nearly 2 million Belarusians in the nation of 9.3 million people have followed the channel, which has been the main conduit for organising demonstrations and offered advice on how to dodge police cordons. It also has run photos, video and other materials documenting the brutal police crackdown on the protests.

Belarus authorities have labeled the channel ‘extremist’ and charged Protasevich in absentia of inciting mass riots and fanning social hatred. He could face 15 years in prison if convicted.

In November, the Belarusian KGB also put Protasevich on the list of people suspected of involvement in terrorism, an ominous sign that he could face even graver charges. Terrorism is punishable by death in Belarus, the only country in Europe that maintains capital punishment.

Amid the international outrage, Moscow quickly offered a helping hand to its ally. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said the episode needs to be investigated – but that it couldn’t be rushed. 

In a previous diversion of a passenger flight, a United Airlines flight in 2004 from London to Washington carrying the singer Yusuf Islam, better known as Cat Stevens, was sent to Bangor, Maine, where FBI agents met the plane and sent him back to England. 

US officials said he was denied access to the United States on national security grounds. He later was allowed into the US. 

Belarus journalist who was dragged off hijacked Ryanair plane appears on state TV to say he is ‘confessing’ to crimes – after colleagues said he was almost certainly being TORTURED

A dissident journalist who was dragged off a Ryanair civilian airliner and arrested by the Belarusian regime in an extraordinary ‘war-like’ hijacking on Sunday has said that he is ‘confessing’ to charges of organising protests and is cooperating with authorities in a video being circulated by state media. 

Roman Protasevich, a blogger who founded Poland-based opposition news outlet Nexta and broadcast footage of huge demonstrations which erupted across Belarus last year, was detained after his flight from Greece to Lithuania was diverted to Minsk by a warplane on the pretext of a bomb threat.

The 26-year-old has now said he is cooperating with investigators and ‘confessing’ to charges of organising anti-regime protests in a video which is being shown on state TV. He also denied having health problems following reports that he was in hospitalised with a heart condition – claims rubbished by Belarus.

‘I am in Detention Centre No1 in Minsk. I can say that I have no health problems, including with my heart or any other organs,’ Protasevich said in the clip that appears to have been filmed on a phone camera.

He is wearing a black hoodie and sits behind a table in a non-descript room with a pack of cigarettes by his side, and fidgets with his hands as he makes the statement and some dark markings are visible on his forehead.

‘The attitude of employees towards me is as correct as possible and according to the law. I continue cooperating with investigators and am confessing to having organised mass unrest in the city of Minsk,’ he said.

Earlier, the Belarus Interior Ministry said Protasevich was being held in Minsk and dismissed unconfirmed reports he was hospitalised with a heart condition. ‘The administration of the institution has not received any complaints about his health,’ the ministry said on its Telegram channel. 

Exiled opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who has previously appeared in a similar video published by state media in which she urged her supporters not to protest after last year’s election, said the video was made under ‘physical and moral pressure’ and called for his ‘immediate’ release. EU leaders have agreed new sanctions against Belarus, including a ban on the use of EU air space and airports.

Protasevich, who both fled to Europe, was last year added to Belarus’s list of ‘individuals involved in terrorist activity’. In Minsk, he faces charges of causing mass unrest, an offence punishable by up to 15 years in jail.   

Ms Tsikhanouskaya earlier sparked fears that she Protasevich was likely in ‘awful circumstances’ and being tortured, telling Sky News: ‘We’re really afraid, not only for his freedom but for his life.’ 

It comes as EU President Ursula von der Leyen slammed Lukashenko’s ‘outrageous and illegal behaviour’ and vowed those responsible for the hijacking would be sanctioned. EU leaders are meeting for a two-day summit today to decide on a joint response to the act of ‘aviation piracy’. 

Belarus’ ambassador in London had been summoned for a dressing down, while aircraft have been instructed to avoid Belarusian airspace following the ‘state-sponsored hijack’ of the Ryanair flight. 

Roman Protasevich, who was dragged off a Ryanair civilian airliner and arrested by the Belarusian regime, has said that he is ‘confessing’ to charges of organising protests and cooperating with authorities in a video being circulated on state TV

Opposition journalist Roman Protasevich, 26, (pictured after he was separated from other passengers) was hauled off the plane and arrested with his Russian girlfriend Sofia Sapega, 23, after the flight from Greece to Lithuania made the emergency landing in Minsk


Opposition journalist Roman Protasevich’s girlfriend Sofia Sapega who was also detained

The airliner full of tourists made an emergency landing at Minsk Airport yesterday after being escorted by a MiG-29 fighter jet amid reports of a bomb on board 

Ryanair flight FR4978 had been flying from Athens in Greece to Vilnius in Lithuania when it was escorted by a Soviet-era MiG-29 fighter jet to Belarus amid fake reports of an IED on board. It was forced to make an emergency landing at Minsk Airport, where authorities arrested dissident journalist Roman Protasevich

Aviation experts have claimed that Belarus threatened to shoot down the Athens to Vilnius Ryanair flight unless it did not land immediately (pictured: a MiG-29 fighter jet involved in the incident arriving back at base in Belarus). Their presence has stoked fears of Russian secret services involvement in a murky operation to arrest opposition journalist Roman Protasevich, 26, a passenger on the plane who was detained with his girlfriend Sofia Sapega, 23, in Minsk

Lukashenko ‘has turned Belarus into North Korea in Europe’: Backlash to hijacking ramps up as West summons Belarus ambassadors and new sanctions are prepared 

Berlin, London and Brussels summoned the Belarusian ambassadors, as exiled opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya called for an independent probe, new sanctions and for Minsk to be excluded from international aviation bodies.

‘An act of state terrorism was carried out and now any passengers flying over Belarus in a civilian aircraft will be in danger,’ Tikhanovskaya told reporters in Vilnius.

‘The regime has turned our country into North Korea in the middle of Europe,’ she said.

The EU and other Western countries have already imposed a wide range of sanctions on Lukashenko’s government over a brutal crackdown on opposition demonstrations that followed his disputed re-election to a sixth term last August.

Together with co-founder Stepan Putilo, Protasevich until recently ran the Nexta telegram channel that helped organise protests that were the biggest challenge to Lukashenko’s rule since he took power in the ex-Soviet country in 1994.

Belarus insisted it had acted legally over the grounding of the Ryanair jet, accusing the West of making ‘unfounded accusations’ for political reasons.

Its air force chief said the plane’s captain had decided to land in Belarus ‘without outside interference’ and that the pilot could have chosen to go to Ukraine or Poland.

A senior Belarusian transport official said the authorities received a letter claiming to be from Hamas threatening to blow up the plane over Vilnius unless the EU renounced support for Israel.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel dismissed Minsk’s explanations as ‘completely implausible’ as the EU pushed for a probe by the International Civil Aviation Organization. The ICAO, a UN agency, is to meet on Thursday.

United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres backed calls for a ‘full, transparent and independent investigation in this disturbing incident’.

Protasevich, an outspoken critic of Belarusian Lukashenko – dubbed ‘Europe’s last dictator’ – was wanted for his role in organising massive protests against him after rigged elections last year. 

The Belarus Interior Ministry said Protasevich is being held in the capital Minsk and dismissed unconfirmed reports that he was hospitalised.  Earlier, Belarusian media reported that Protasevich’s mother received unconfirmed reports that her son was in hospital and in critical condition because of heart problems.

‘This information does not correspond with reality,’ the ministry said on its Telegram channel.

It added that ‘the arrested person is in custody’ and is being held in Detention Centre No1 in central Minsk.

‘The administration of the institution has not received any complaints about his health,’ the ministry said.

Protasevich’s flight made a sharp deviation from its course just a few miles from the Lithuanian border before landing in Minsk on Sunday, leading some aviation experts to believe that the Soviet-era MiG-29 fighter jet may even have threatened to shoot down the Ryanair passenger plane.  

Suspicions have fallen on four passengers, believed to be agents from the Belarus’s secret service – known as the KGB, the same name as its Russian counterpart – who voluntarily departed in Minsk, not continuing with the flight when it travelled on to its final destination, the Lithuanian capital Vilnius. 

Their presence has stoked fears that Belarusian or Russian agents were involved in a murky operation to arrest Protasevich who had begged the crew not to follow the order, saying ‘they will kill me’ and telling a fellow passenger on the ground that he faced ‘the death penalty.’   

British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab raised the possibility of direct Russian involvement in the diversion of the civilian airliner, telling MPs earlier today: ‘It’s very difficult to believe that this kind of action could have been taken without at least the acquiescence of the authorities in Moscow.’

Yale University History Professor Timothy Snyder also added fuel to rumours of Russian participation in the plot, claiming in a tweet: ‘Belarus would not have hijacked an EU plane without Russian approval’.  

But Russia threw its weight behind Belarus today, with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov saying that Lukashenko was taking an ‘absolutely reasonable approach’ to the detention of Protasevich. 

Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova also mocked the Western indignation at the alleged hijacking, writing on Facebook she was ‘shocked that the West calls the incident in Belarusian air space ‘shocking” and accusing Western nations of ‘kidnappings, forced landings, and illegal arrests’.  

Lukashenko, an ally of Vladimir Putin, personally gave the ‘unequivocal order’ to ‘make the plane do a U-turn and land,’ according to a statement by Belarus’s presidential news service. 

Tsikhanouskaya called for wider sanctions on the Lukashenko’s regime after Protasevich’s arrest, which she said was ‘the result of impunity’. 

‘For nine months already we have been fighting against the regime after fraudulent elections, but the regime still feels impunity and you see they use such awful methods of kidnapping people,’ she said.

‘We have to put much more pressure on this regime for them to stop violence and to release political prisoners.’

She said she though it ‘unbelievable’ the regime had lasted long under these circumstances, especially because ‘the whole county is against the regime’.  

‘The only question is, how many victims will there be during this fight for freedom and for democracy? I’m sure that these changes will come soon’, she added. 

ROMAN PROTASEVICH: OPPOSITION BLOGGER FORCED INTO EXILE 

NEXTA, Protasevich’s outlet, was closely involved in reporting a wave of opposition protests that last year threatened to topple Lukashenko, before he was given backing by Vladimir Putin

Protasevich, 26, has long been a thorn in the side of Belarus’s hardline dictator Alexander Lukashenko.

He worked as an editor at the Poland-based Nexta Live channel, which is based on the Telegram messenger app and has over 1 million subscribers. 

The channel, which is openly hostile to Lukashenko, played an important role in broadcasting huge opposition protests against the President last year.

Nexta also helped coordinate those same protests, which were sparked by anger over what the opposition said was a rigged presidential election. 

The channel’s footage, which showed how harshly police cracked down on demonstrators, was used widely by international media at a time when the Belarusian authorities were reluctant to allow foreign media in.

In November Protasevich published a copy of an official Belarusian list of terrorists on which his name figured. 

The listing said he was accused of organising mass riots while working at Nexta. He also stands accused of disrupting social order and of inciting social hatred. He regards the allegations, which could see him jailed for years, as unjustified political repression.

Protasevich fled Belarus for Poland in 2019 due to pressure from the authorities, according to Media Solidarity, a group that supports Belarusian journalists. 

He moved his parents to Poland too after they were put under surveillance. He later relocated to Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, where opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya is also based.

Protasevich is currently editor-in-chief of a Belarusian political outlet hosted on the Telegram messaging app called ‘Belarus of the Brain’ which has around a quarter of a million subscribers.

He was flying back to Vilnius from Greece where he had spent time taking photographs of a visit there by Tsikhanouskaya. He had posted the pictures to social media before flying back. 

Meanwhile, Minsk Airport was at the centre of fresh drama on Monday after it suspended boarding of a Lufthansa flight to Frankfurt over security fears after receiving a tip-off about a possible terrorist act.

Lufthansa said in a written statement on Monday that Minsk authorities, prompted by a security alert, had unloaded luggage and freight from flight LH1487 and carried out renewed security checks on 56 people on board, including five crew members.

Minsk airport said measures for the screening of passengers, baggage and aircraft had been completed and that the aircraft was preparing again for departure. The airport was operating normally, it said.

‘The message about the terrorist attack, which was received earlier by e-mail of the airport, was not confirmed,’ the airport said.

Earlier, Ryanair boss Michael O’Leary condemned ‘state-sponsored piracy’ by Belarus after one of his passenger jets was yesterday forced to land by a warplane on the pretext of a bomb threat. 

‘I think it’s very frightening for the crew, for the passengers who were held under armed guard, had their bags searched,’ he told Newstalk.

‘It was clear it appears that the intent of the Russian authorities was to remove a journalist and his traveling companion. We believe there was also some KGB agents offloaded from the aircraft as well.’ 

Tory MP Tom Tugendhat this morning called it ‘a warlike act,’ joining the British, Irish and American governments in their condemnation. ‘This was a flight between two NATO members and between two EU members,’ the Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman told Radio 4. ‘If it’s not an act of war, it’s certainly a warlike act.’ 

Mr Raab, the British foreign secretary, vowed to hold Lukashenko accountable ‘for his outlandish actions’ with further sanctions and demanded the ‘immediate release of Protasevich.’

His Irish counterpart Simon Coveney was also withering, saying that Dublin – where Ryanair is headquartered – would not allow the ‘state-sponsored piracy’ to go unpunished.

‘We cannot allow this incident to pass on the basis of warnings or strong press releases,’ Coveney told RTE. ‘I think there has to be real edge to the sanctions that are applied on the back of this. This was effectively aviation piracy, state-sponsored.’  

Moscow defended its ally, with foreign minister Sergei Lavrov calling Lukashenko’s action an ‘absolutely reasonable approach.’ 

‘A representative of the Belarusian foreign ministry… stressed the readiness of the Belarusian authorities to act on the issue in a transparent manner and to follow all international rules,’ Lavrov said during a press conference following a meeting with his Greek counterpart.

‘I think this is an absolutely reasonable approach.’

He called on the global community to ‘soberly assess the situation’.

Earlier Monday, authorities in Belarus insisted they had acted legally when they diverted the flight. They instead accused the West of making unfounded claims for political reasons.

Several European airlines including AirBaltic, Air Austria and Wizz Air were avoiding Belarusian air space today as EU leaders were set to meet in Brussels ton discuss furthers sanctions against Lukashenko. 

AirBaltic said it was monitoring the situation and would avoid Belarus airspace until it ‘becomes clearer’. It added: ‘the safety and health of our passengers and employees in the main priority’. 

The Foreign Affairs Committee has called for a complete flight ban on Belarusian airspace. MP Tugendhat said he wanted to see a flight ban ‘to protect our citizens from any potential repeat of this event’.

Tugendhat explained he was calling for a ban on all flights going into, or out of, Belarus, until Sunday’s hijacking was resolved. 

He added a call for ‘immediate sanctions on the Lukashenko regime’, including on the Yamal-Europe oil pipeline.  

Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said further sanctions were being considered against the Lukashenko administration and Belarus’ ambassador in London had been summoned for a dressing down.

Journalists and Belarusian activists wait to see passengers of the Ryanair plane carrying opposition figure Raman Pratasevich at the International Airport outside Vilnius, Lithuania

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said he had instructed the Civil Aviation Authority to request airlines avoid Belarusian airspace ‘in order to keep passengers safe’.

He also suspended the operating permit for Belavia, the country’s state-owned airline.

On Sunday, Ryanair Flight 4978 had already begun its descent into the Lithuanian capital when the pilot announced that the plane would be suddenly diverting to Minsk. There was no explanation.

But Protasevich reacted immediately, standing up from his seat, reaching into the overhead locker, pulling a laptop computer from his hand luggage and passing it to his girlfriend along with his mobile phone. 

‘When it was announced they were going to land in Minsk, Roman stood up, opened the luggage compartment, took luggage and was trying to split things,’ said a Lithuanian passenger, who gave his name only as Mantas.

‘I think he made a mistake. There were plenty of people so he could give the things to me or other passengers and not the girlfriend, who was also I think arrested.’

Outside the plane – although not visible to Mantas – was a Soviet-era MiG-29, on orders from Lukashenko to force the plane to Minsk.

Mantas was speaking to Reuters after a day-long ordeal that began in Athens and finally ended late in the evening in the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius, after a stopover of more than seven hours in Minsk.

Another exhausted passenger, speaking to reporters without giving her name, said Protasevich looked ‘super scared’.

‘I looked directly into his eyes and he was very sad,’ she said. Protasevich was immediately separated on arrival in Minsk and checks of luggage using sniffer dogs turned up nothing.


Ryanair boss O’Leary (left) described the act today as ‘state-sponsored hijacking,’ adding that ‘we believe there were some KGB agents offloaded at the airport as well.’ Tory MP Tom Tugendhat (right) called it ‘a warlike act,’ joining the British and US governments, among other Western nations, who have condemned the grounding of the Ryanair flight.

Was Ryanair hijacking a KGB sting? Ally of arrested blogger claims Belarusian spies ‘initiated fight with cabin crew by insisting there was a bomb on board’

A member of the Nexta team, Tadeusz Giczan, said on Twitter that representatives of the Belarusian security agency had been on the flight with Protasevich.

‘Then when the plane had entered Belarus airspace, the KGB officers initiated a fight with the Ryanair crew insisting there’s an IED onboard,’ he said.

A spokeswoman for state company Lithuanian Airports, Lina Beisine, told AFP that Minsk airport had said the flight was redirected ‘due to a conflict between a member of the crew and the passengers’.

Ryanair said the flight’s crew had been notified by Belarus air traffic control of ‘a potential security threat on board’ and were instructed to divert to Minsk, the ‘nearest’ airport.

The EU and the United States have sanctioned Lukashenko and dozens of officials and businessmen tied to his regime with asset freezes and visa bans.

The opposition protests in Belarus, which left at least four people dead, have now subsided, but journalists and activists continue to receive prison sentences in the aftermath.

‘We saw that Roman was stopped due to some things in the luggage,’ Mantas said, adding that the other passengers also had their luggage checked and were taken by bus to the terminal where they spent several hours waiting to reboard the plane.

‘We saw from the window that Roman is standing alone, and one policeman with dog was trying to find something (in his luggage).’

Another passenger, who also did not give his name, told Lithuanian media that Protasevich had identified himself to Belarusian security officials on arrival. ‘I saw how his passport was taken away. He took off his mask and said: ‘I’m so-and-so and I’m the reason why all this is going on.” 

Aviation experts today revealed that the passenger plane had been significantly closer to Vilnius than it was to Minsk when it was forced to turn around, making a mockery of the Belarusian claims that it needed to make an emergency landing for a bomb threat. 

Leading opposition figure Pavel Latushko said: ‘The air traffic controllers of Minsk-2 airport threatened to shoot at the Ryanair civilian plane with passengers on board. For this reason, a military fighter MiG-29 of Belarus Air Force was sent.

‘This proves again that this incident was an act of state terrorism… It demands an immediate reaction of European authorities and the entire world community.’

Ryanair did not deny the claims this morning, telling MailOnline: ‘Ryanair condemns the unlawful actions of Belarusian authorities who diverted Ryanair’s flight FR4978 to Minsk yesterday (23 May), which was an act of aviation piracy.

‘This is now being dealt with by EU safety and security agencies & NATO. Ryanair is fully cooperating with them and we cannot comment further for security reasons.’  

Latushko heads the National Anti-Crisis Management, a shadow government set up last year by the Belarusian Coordination Council for the peaceful transfer of power following the ‘rigged’ 2020 election, widely seen as stolen by President Alexander Lukashenko.

He is a former culture minister of Belarus and was the country’s ambassador to France, Spain and Portugal before joining the opposition.

The claim about the shooting had come via the Belarus civil aviation authority, he said. 

Moscow-based aviation expert Vadim Lukashevich said he too believed that a threat to shoot down the Ryanair flight had been made.

He said: ‘To make it crystal clear – the pilots of the Ryanair plane that was forced to land in Belarus were pulling towards the destination Vilnius until the last possible moment.

‘They had to turn back under the threat of a fighter jet when the distance to Vilnius airport was only 45 miles away and only 19 miles to the Lithuanian border.’

He claimed the Ryanair pilots were ‘heading towards Lithuania without slowing down… they were escaping from the fighter jet, and they turned back just two minutes before crossing the Lithuanian border. ‘

Flightradar data showed the plane had not slowed to descend at the usual height on this route but appeared to be flying as fast as possible to the border – before abruptly turning back, seemingly on the orders of the MiG-29.

Mantas, a Lithuanian passenger of Ryanair flight FR4978, speaks to the media after arriving at Vilnius Airport, Lithuania

Belarusian dog handler checks luggage from the Ryanair flight in Minsk International Airport on May 23

The Belarus authorities claimed its bomb-disposal squad was examining the plane

WHY HAVE THERE BEEN PROTESTS IN BELARUS? 

Belarus, a former Soviet republic closely allied with Russia, was rocked by strikes and weeks of protests last summer after President Alexander Lukashenko, who has ruled since 1994, was re-elected. 

The demonstrations started in the run-up to the August election day and became widespread after he claimed victory.

The results was rejected by opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who was soon forced into exile.

The massive demonstrations sparked by the vote were the largest and most persistent show of opposition the former Soviet republic has ever seen, with some of them attracting as many as 200,000 people.

More than 33,000 people were arrested during the protests and the police crackdown was brutal, with tear gas and rubber bullets used to disperse the masses, while others were beaten in the streets.

Thousands were detained as the protests rumbled on through the autumn, with political activists and journalists jailed or forced into exile in neighbouring former Soviet states.

At least four people were killed in the repression, with harrowing accounts emerging of abuse and torture in prisons.  

Lukashenko, who has been in power for 26 years, has refused to step down and has secured backing from Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin.

The European Union has refused to recognise the results of the election and imposed sanctions on Belarus.

There have been sporadic demonstrations against Lukashenko this year, including on Freedom Day, March 25, when dozens of protesters were arrested in Minsk.

Belarus was disqualified from the weekend’s Eurovision Song Contest after lyrics of submitted songs were deemed to be mocking of anti-government protests.

He is convinced that ‘the fighter had permission to shoot’, he said.

‘And I am absolutely sure that the crew of the passenger aircraft turned around only after receiving a notification from the Belarusian fighter that, in case of disobedience, it would open fire before the passenger plane left the airspace of Belarus.’ 

Meanwhile, a leading Russian investigative journalist Roman Dobrokhotov revealed that as well as Protasevich’s girlfriend Sapega, four Russian passengers who had been on the flight to Lithuania left it in Minsk.

He claimed: ‘Four citizens of Russia did not continue the flight to Vilnius.

‘This operation was escorted by Russian special services.’

One of Russia’s most respected independent journalists Alexey Venediktov, editor-in-chief of Echo Moscow radio, said: ‘Four more Russians didn’t follow on to Vilnius, but left the plane in Minsk, and dissolved into the nature.’

Another source suggests there were three not four Russians who left the plane, but in any event their identities are not known. 

Sapega is a student of the European Humanities University, now based in Vilnius, after its forced closure by Lukashenko’s authorities in Minsk. 

She is a Russian citizen, and the university where she studies international law has expressed deep concern for her fate.

Political detainees in Belarus are frequently tortured by the KGB secret service and police.

A passenger named Raselle, a beautician, was videoed on the plane when it landed in Minsk posted a message to say that Protasevich had said to the flight attendant: ‘Don’t do this, they will kill me. I am refugee.

‘He answered: We must, we have no choice, it’s in Ryanair legal agreements.’ 

Lithuania – a former Soviet state now in the EU and NATO – has led Western calls for action against its neighbour, Belarus.

‘It is an unprecedented attack against the international community: a civilian plane and its passengers have been hijacked by military force, and a Belarusian citizen has been abducted, whose life and health are in danger,’ said a government statement.

‘It is unjustifiable that ordinary international travellers have been held hostage to the regime’s aggression.

‘This is the act of state terrorism directed against the security of citizens of the European Union and other countries, civil society of Belarus seeking asylum from the regime’s persecution, as well as international civil aviation.

‘Lithuania will demand a clear and uncompromising response from the international community.’

Mr Raab said in a statement on Monday: ‘The UK condemns yesterday’s actions by the Belarusian authorities, who arrested journalist Roman Protasevich on the basis of a ruse, having forced his flight to land in Minsk. Mr Lukashenko must be held to account for his outlandish actions.

A woman covered with an old Belarusian national flag holds a phone with a sticker in colors of an old Belarusian national flag as she waits to see passengers of the Ryanair plane carrying opposition figure Raman Pratasevich

The Ryanair plane, which was carrying blogger Roman Protasevich and was diverted to Belarus, lands at Vilnius Airport in Vilnius, Lithuania on Sunday

The Ryanair flight is parked at Minsk International Airport on Sunday after it was stopped by authorities


Passengers on the Ryanair flight filmed Belarusian officials walking towards the plane before Protasevich was arrested (left) while sniffer dogs searched bags (right)

Lithuanian Prime Minister Ingrida Simonyte came to Vilnius Airport for the plane’s arrival on Sunday, as did dozens of Belarusian opposition supporters

‘The UK calls for the immediate release of Mr Protasevich and other political prisoners held in Belarus. The UK is working with our allies on a coordinated response, including further sanctions. The UK also calls for the ICAO Council to meet urgently to consider the regime’s flouting of the international rules safeguarding civil aviation.’

The 27 EU leaders open a two-day summit later Monday and the issue immediately shot to the top the agenda amid united condemnation of Lukashenko. 

‘The outrageous and illegal behaviour of the regime in Belarus will have consequences,’ EU chief Ursula von der Leyen tweeted. ‘Those responsible for the Ryanair hijacking must be sanctioned.’

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell called it ‘yet another blatant attempt by the Belarusian authorities to silence all opposition voices.’ He called the diversion of the plane an ‘inadmissible step’ highlighting a further worsening in relations between both sides.

The Belarusian Foreign Ministry on Monday bristled at what it described as ‘belligerent’ EU statements, insisting that the country’s authorities acted ‘in full conformity with international rules.’

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken called the incident ‘shocking’ and accused the Belarusian government of endangering the lives of those aboard the aircraft, including some Americans. He called for the release of Pratasevich and for the Council of the International Civil Aviation Organization to review the incident. 

Police officers detained Roman Protasevich after he was attempting to cover a rally in Minsk, Belarus on 26 March 2017

‘I saw this Belarusian guy with girlfriend sitting right behind us. He freaked out when the pilot said the plane is diverted to Minsk. He said there’s death penalty awaiting him there,’ passenger Marius Rutkauskas said after the plane finally arrived in Vilnius.

‘We sat for an hour after the landing. Then they started releasing passengers and took those two. We did not see them again.’

Pratasevich was a co-founder of the Telegram messaging app’s Nexta channel, which played a prominent role in helping organise major protests against Belarus’ President Alexander Lukashenko.

The Belarusian authorities have designated it as extremist and levered charges of inciting riots against Pratasevich, who could face 15 years in prison if convicted.

Months of protests in Belarus were fueled by Lukashenko’s election to a sixth presidential term in an August vote that the opposition denounced as rigged.

More than 34,000 people have been arrested in Belarus since August, and thousands were brutally beaten.

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