MOSCOW: Belarusian authorities scrambled a fighter jet and flagged what turned out to be a false bomb alert to force a Ryanair plane to land on Sunday (May 23) and then detained an opposition-minded journalist who was on board, drawing condemnation from Europe and the United States.
In the incident, described by some EU leaders as a hijacking, a Soviet-era MiG-29 fighter jet escorted a Ryanair-operated passenger plane flying from Athens to Lithuania. The plane was suddenly diverted to Minsk, the capital of Belarus, where authorities detained journalist Roman Protasevich.
Protasevich had his head in his hands and was shaking when he realised the flight was headed for Minsk, Lithuania's Delfi news outlet said, quoting a passenger.
Later, as he was led away, according to the report, he remarked: "I'll get the death penalty here." Reuters could not verify the report.
The 26-year-old journalist worked for Poland-based online news service NEXTA, which broadcast footage of mass protests against Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko last year via the Telegram messenger app at a time when it was hard for foreign media to do so.
Protasevich who now works for a different Telegram channel called Belamova, is wanted in Belarus on extremism charges and stands accused of organising mass riots and of inciting social hatred, allegations he denies.
Data from the flightradar24.com website showed the plane was diverted just two minutes before it was due to cross into Lithuanian airspace. After seven hours on the ground in Minsk, the plane took off and finally landed in Vilnius where Lithuanian Prime Minister Ingrida Simonyte was waiting to meet the passengers.
As European officials threatened new sanctions on Belarus, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken called the forced landing and arrest a "shocking act", demanded Protasevich's immediate release and said President Joe Biden's administration was "closely coordinating our response with our partners".
EU member state Lithuania, where Protasevich is based, urged the European Union and NATO to respond.
Ursula von der Leyen, head of the EU's executive European Commission, said Protasevich must be released immediately and that those responsible for "the Ryanair hijacking must be sanctioned", adding EU leaders meeting in Brussels on Monday would discuss what action to take.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said in a tweet that the incident was serious and dangerous and required an international investigation.
Simon Coveney, foreign minister of Ireland, where Ryanair is based, said on Twitter: "EU inaction or indecision will be taken as weakness by Belarus."
Lithuania's foreign minister, Gabrielius Landsbergis, said he discussed the Ryanair plane diversion with US Assistant Secretary of State Philip Reeker, urging a strong response from the West.