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A Ryanair Flight Carrying An Opposition Journalist Is Forced To Land In Belarus

Updated May 23, 2021 at 7:17 PM ET

Authorities in Belarus ordered a Ryanair flight to make an emergency landing in the capital city of Minsk, after reports that a bomb was on board the aircraft. Officials then boarded the plane and arrested Roman Protasevich, the former editor and founder of an opposition blog and social media channel.

No explosives were found on the plane.

The flight, which had taken off in Athens and was on its way to Lithuania, was just leaving Belarusian airspace when the bomb was reported. The Belarusian regime says it then sent a scrambled fighter jet to escort the flight to the Minsk airport.

The Ryanair flight made a kind of U-turn just before the Lithuanian border before heading back toward Minsk, according the site Flightradar24. It was closer to the Vilnius airport in Lithuania than Minsk at the time.

The act has drawn condemnation from European leaders, demanding an explanation. Lithuania's president said the Belarusian "regime is behind the abhorrent action" and called on NATO and the European Union to respond, while Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said, "We demand all passengers' immediate release." Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki called the incident a "hijacking" and called for immediate sanctions on Belarus.

U.S. Ambassador to Belarus Julie Fisher said "faking a bomb threat" and forcing the plane's landing to arrest Protasevich was "dangerous and abhorrent."

Secretary of State Antony Blinken, blaming the regime for the "shocking act," said the U.S. "strongly condemns" the plane's diversion and demands Protasevich's immediate release, according to a statement.

"Initial reports suggesting the involvement of the Belarusian security services and the use of Belarusian military aircraft to escort the plane are deeply concerning and require full investigation," Blinken said.

Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the exiled leader of Belarus' pro-democracy movement, said Protasevich faces the death penalty in Belarus and called for sanctions against the country.

Protasevich founded the blog and Telegram channel Nexta, which has tens of thousands of followers on Twitter, and played a key role in organizing anti-government protests last fall. He currently lives in Lithuania, where the Ryanair flight was headed, but is wanted in Belarus on multiple charges.

Belarus' authoritarian leader Alexander Lukashenko declared himself the winner of an election in August to his sixth term. It set off months of massive street protests, but Lukashenko has remained in power with support from Russia. The European Union and U.S. have not recognized his legitimacy and have imposed sanctions on his inner circle.

NPR's Lucian Kim contributed to this report.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.