By Andrey Ostroukh and Andrius Sytas
MOSCOW (Reuters) -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 and then detained an opposition-minded journalist who was on board, drawing condemnation from across Europe.
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.
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.
Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki called the incident a “reprehensible act of state terrorism.”
Simon Coveney, foreign minister of Ireland, where Ryanair is based, said on Twitter: “A strong and united response from EU needed. EU inaction or indecision will be taken as weakness by Belarus.”
Lithuania’s foreign minister, Gabrielius Landsbergis, said in a statement that he discussed the Ryanair plane diversion with U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Philip Reeker, urging a strong response from the West.
Adam Schiff, chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives Intelligence Committee, wrote on Twitter: “The lengths that autocrats will go to destroy the free press are clear … The international condemnation must be swift and strong. This cannot stand.”
There was no immediate comment from U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration.
Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who like Protasevich now operates from Lithuania, called on the U.N. aviation agency, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), to kick Belarus out.
ICAO said it was “strongly concerned” over the incident, which might have breached the Chicago Convention, underpinning civil aviation. Global airline industry body IATA also called for a full investigation.
The incident is certain to worsen already dire relations between the West and Belarus, which has been tightly controlled since 1994 by Lukashenko.
Opponents accuse him of rigging a presidential election in his own favour last year and of then cracking down violently on the opposition. He denies electoral fraud.
APPEAL TO NATO
Ryanair said in a statement that the plane’s crew was notified by Belarus of a potential security threat on board and was instructed to divert to the nearest airport, Minsk.
The plane landed safely, passengers were offloaded and security checks were made by local authorities and the aircraft later resumed its journey and landed safely in Vilnius, Ryanair said.
One of the passengers, speaking to Reuters after arriving at Vilnius airport, said neither the pilot nor the crew gave a full explanation for the sudden diversion to Minsk, but Protasevich reacted quickly to the news, standing up from his seat.
The Lithuanian passenger, who gave his name only as Mantas, said Protasevich opened an overhead locker, pulled out a laptop computer and a phone and gave them to a female companion. On landing, Protasevich was immediately separated, Mantas said, adding that the companion might also have been detained.
Belarusian officials with sniffer dogs searched the luggage of each passenger, including Protasevich, but appeared to find nothing. “It looked fake,” Mantas said of the bomb-detection operation.
Belarusian news agency BelTA reported that Lukashenko had personally ordered the warplane to escort the Ryanair plane to Minsk. No explosives were found, it said.
Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda called for an international response.
“I call on NATO and EU allies to immediately react to the threat posed to international civil aviation by the Belarus regime. The international community must take immediate steps that this does not repeat,” Nauseda said.
Lithuanian presidential adviser Asta Skaisgiryte said the operation to force the plane carrying around 170 people from 12 countries to land seemed to be pre-planned.
The Belarusian department for organised crime control reported that Protasevich had been detained before deleting the statement from its Telegram channel.
Around 35,000 people have been detained in Belarus since August, human rights groups say. Dozens have received jail terms. Authorities say that more than 1,000 criminal cases have been launched.
(Reporting by Andrey Ostroukh and Andrius Sytas in Vilnius; Writing by Andrew Osborn and Matt Spetalnick; Editing by Nick Macfie, Timothy Heritage and Peter Cooney)