Belarus forces airliner to land and arrests opponent, sparking U.S. and European outrage By Reuters

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© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko attends the Roundtable Summit of Phase 1 sessions of the Belt and Roads Forum at the Yanqi Lake International Conference Center in Beijing, China on May 15, 2017. REUTERS / Lintao Zhang / Pool / File Photo

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By Andrey Ostroukh and Andrius Sytas

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Belarusian authorities messed up a fighter jet and reported a false bomb alarm in an attempt to force a Ryanair plane to land on Sunday. Subsequently, an opposition journalist who was on board was arrested and convicted by Europe and the United States.

In the incident, described as a hijacking by some EU leaders, a Soviet-era MiG-29 fighter jet escorted a Ryanair-operated passenger aircraft flying from Athens to Lithuania. The plane was suddenly diverted to Minsk, the capital of Belarus, where the authorities arrested journalist Roman Protasevich.

Protasevich had his head in his hands and was trembling when he noticed the flight was going to Minsk, the Lithuanian news agency Delfi said, quoting a passenger. Later, when he was taken away, according to the report, he remarked, “I will be sentenced to death here.” Reuters was unable to verify the report.

The 26-year-old journalist worked for Poland-based online news service NEXTA, which last year broadcast footage of mass protests against Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko via the Telegram messenger app when it was difficult for foreign media to do so.

Protasevich, who now works for another telegram channel called Belamova, is wanted in Belarus for extremism and accused of organizing mass riots and inciting social hatred, which he denies.

Data from the flightradar24.com website showed that the plane was diverted just two minutes before crossing 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.

When European officials threatened new sanctions against Belarus, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken described the emergency landing and arrest as a “shocking act”, called for the immediate release of Protasevich and said President Joe Biden’s administration was “coordinating our response closely with our partners” .

The EU member state of Lithuania, where Protasevich is based, called on the European Union and NATO to respond.

Ursula von der Leyen, head of the EU executive at the European Commission, said Protasevich must be released immediately and those responsible for “the hijacking of Ryanair must be sanctioned”.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said in a tweet that the incident was serious, dangerous and required an international investigation.

Simon Coveney, Irish Foreign Minister, where Ryanair is based, said on Twitter: “Inaction or indecision by the EU is seen as a weakness by Belarus.”

Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis said he had discussed the rerouting of Ryanair planes with U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Philip Reeker and called for a strong response from the West.

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