On Sunday morning Belarus ordered a Ryanair jet to land and arrested one of its passengers. The move has been widely condemned but what happened and why?
Ryanair flight FR4978 had left Athens on Sunday morning bound for Lithuania at about 7.30am. At about 9.45am, it was just about to leave Belarusian airspace and enter into Lithuania when air traffic control contacted the crew claiming a bomb threat had been made.
Belarus’ dictator Aleksandr Lukashenko ordered a military jet to accompany the plane to Minsk airport where it landed just after 10.15am. Seven hours later, with no bomb found (to the surprise of no one), the plane departed again, eventually landing in Lithuania just before 6.30pm. But one man who had boarded the plane in Athens had been snatched and detained by the regime.
The man who was in effect kidnapped was Roman Protasevich, a 26-year-old news editor who had covered and directed protests against Lukashenko last year after he claimed victory in a corrupt sham election. The country’s security service has placed him on its terrorist list and Mr Protasevich now stands accused of inciting hatred and mass disorder which could see him jailed for up to 12 years.
Mr Protasevich lives in exile in Lithuania and was flying back from Greece after attending a conference there with the Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, also exiled from Belarus like many opposition figures.
Unsurprisingly, the EU, UK and USA have condemned the move with EU leaders due to meet later tonight to discuss further sanctions on the country while NATO is also considering what further actions it can take against the former soviet state.
Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney told state broadcaster RTE: ‘We cannot allow this incident to pass on the basis of warnings or strong press releases.’
UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Rabb said the arrest was ‘on the basis of a ruse’ and called for Mr Protasevich to be released immediately. British and EU air authorities have also now told airlines to avoid flying into Belarusian airspace.
However Lukashenko knows he has the backing of Russian President Vladimir Putin so isn’t likely to care what sanctions the EU and western nations impose on him and his country.
Initially the airline downplayed the hijacking but today Chief Executive Michael O’Leary told Irish Newstalk Radio it was a ‘case of state-sponsored hijacking… state-sponsored piracy’. He added: ‘It appears the intent of the authorities was to remove a journalist and his travelling companion… we believe there were some KGB agents offloaded at the airport as well.’