Belarus scrambled a MiG-29 fighter to force down a Ryanair passenger plane flying over its territory and arrested a passenger, the former editor and co-founder of the opposition Nexta Telegram channel, who now faces the death penalty.
The plane was a commercial flight flying from Athens and Lithuania with 172 passengers on board, including Roman Protasevich (Belarusian: Raman Pratasevich), the former editor of the opposition Telegram channel and news organisation Nexta, which has been instrumental in reporting on Belarus' President Alexander Lukashenko repression of the opposition movement and played a big role in organising and controlling the mass protests last summer.
Protasevich reports that he was followed to the airport in Athens by Belarusian KGB agents, some of whom got on the plane with him. Once the plane entered Belarusian air space the presumed agents engaged with the Ryanair staff, claiming there was a bomb on board.
At the same time Lukashenko scrambled a MiG-29 jet fighter carrying live air-to-air missiles that forced the Ryanair plane to divert and land at Minsk Airport, according to eye witness accounts that filmed and photographed the plane after it was deployed.
The passengers were led off the plane and Protasevich was arrested and taken away. The plane left again to continue its flight without Protasevich about four hours later.
Protasevich was in Athens where he had been covering a visit by opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, a former presidential candidate who has declared herself the country’s leader-in-exile due to widespread fraud during last year’s elections.
The incident caused immediate outrage and claims of kidnapping as well as accusations that Belarus has carried out an illegal act of state-sponsored terrorism.
The Minsk-based human rights centre Viasna has confirmed that Protasevich has been arrested and taken into custody.
The EU will meet today to discuss sanctions on Belarus in a scheduled meeting, but clearly the agenda will now be dominated by the response to the Ryanair forced landing.
Several harsh sanctions have been already floated including: an suspend overflights of all EU airlines over Belarus, ban Belavia from landing in EU airports, and suspend all transit, including ground transit, between Belarus to the EU.
Confusion as plane forced to land
Protasevich is one of the most wanted of Belarus’ opposition activists, as the Nexta Channel has been instrumental in rallying and co-ordinating the otherwise leaderless mass protests that have rocked the country for almost a year.
He was put on a terrorist watch list in November by the KGB, which, unlike its Russian equivalent, didn't bother to change its name after the collapse of the USSR in 1991.
Under Protasevich, the Nexta-Live Telegram channel documented police brutality at the mass protests against Lukashenko after his disputed re-election last year on August 9. Protasevich fled to neighbouring Poland, where he was enrolled as a student. More recently, Lithuania had granted Protasevich political asylum, where the government has been an outspoken critic of the Lukashenko regime.
It appears that Belarusian KGB agents boarded the plane, claimed there was a bomb on board and that there was a “conflict” between an unidentified passenger, presumed to be a KGB operative, and the plane’s crew.
Lina Beisiene, a spokeswoman for Lietuvos oro uostai, the operator of Lithuanian airports, said that Lithuanian civil aviation authorities had no information about any bombs on the plane.
"We don’t have such information," she told the national LRT television channel. "There was a conflict between a passenger and a crewmember. It was decided to land the plane in Minsk," she said as cited by Tass, giving no further details.
Ryanair released a statement that said: “The crew on a Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius today were notified by Belarus ATC of a potential security threat on board and were instructed to divert to the nearest airport, Minsk. The aircraft landed safely and passengers were offloaded while security checks were completed by local authorities. Nothing untoward was found and authorities cleared the aircraft to depart together with passengers and crew after approx. 5hrs on the ground in Minsk.”
A MiG jet fighter was scrambled to intercept the plane and rendez-voused with the commercial plane shortly before it was due to leave Belarusian airspace, forcing it to return to Minsk and land there.
At the time the pilot was told of the possible bomb by the Belarusian authorities the plane was near the border with Lithuania and its destination airport of Vilnius was the nearest landing point for the plane, but instead it was redirected and headed to Minsk.
Lukashenko personally ordered the MiG to scramble and intercept the passenger plane, the state-owned BelTA news agency reports, citing the Pul Pervogo Telegram channel close to the presidential administration.
"After the pilot of this civil aircraft [the Ryanair plane] decided to land at an alternative airport (Minsk-2) and turned the plane towards Minsk, it was decided to scramble a MiG-29 crew on duty from the Baranovichi airport (Brest region)," the ministry said on its Telegram channel, citing Andrei Gurtsevich, chief of the air operations and first deputy commander of Belarus air and air defence forces.
According to Gurtsevich, the country’s air defence forces were put on high alert following reports that a civil plane with a possible bomb on board was in the country’s airspace. He said that the MiG-29 crew was tasked with controlling the situation and helping the civil aircraft make a safe landing at Minsk airport. After the Ryanair plane landed, the fighter jet returned to its home base.
After the plane landed at 1pm local time law enforcement agents entered and searched it but no explosive device was found, the authorities confirmed. Ryanair said in a statement that the plane left again at 5pm local time to continue its journey.
However, according to reports, four Russians and two other Belarusian nationals, including one travelling with Protasevich, remained in Minsk and did not re-join the plane, although there are no details of who these people were or why they did not continue their journey.
Crowds of people and several senior Lithuanian politicians gathered at the airport in Vilnius to greet the plane when it at last arrived at its final destination in the early evening of the same day.
Dogged by the KGB
The incident also strongly suggests that the Belarus KGB is active in the EU and has been staking out opposition figures living in self-imposed exile.
Protasevich, who has been living in exile since 2019, told colleagues earlier the same day that he was followed to the airport and a Russian-speaking man was in the check-in line with him and attempted to photograph his documents.
“He was next in line at the document check and just turned around and walked away,” Protasevich said. “For some reason, he also tried to secretly photograph my documents.”
Other agents boarded the plane with him. As the plane came into land in Minsk Protasevich was clearly shaken.
A passenger sitting next to Protasevich on the plane reported: "They took us out of the plane, the dogs sniffed our luggage. They took that guy (Roman) aside, threw his belongings on the runway. We asked him what’s going on. He told me who he is and added: “They'll execute me here”,” Tadeusz Giczan tweeted, the current editor-in-chief of Nexta TV, commenting on information shared by passengers on the plane.
“He was calmer by then, but he was still trembling. An officer was standing next to him all the time, soon the soldiers came and took him away,” the passenger said as cited by Lithuanian delfi.lt.
Stepan Putilo and former editor-in-chief Roman Protasevich founded the Nexta channel on YouTube in 2015 and launched a channel of this name in Telegram, which became one of the venues for Lukashenko’s opponents following the August 9, 2020 presidential polls.
During the height of the protests Nexta briefly became the most read news channel on social media in the world as it quickly garnered millions of followers.
The state tried repeatedly to shut the channel down, but thanks to Telegram's experience of foiling a similar effort to block the channel by the Russian authorities it has developed techniques to dodge efforts to silence it and continued to broadcast.
The Nexta Telegram channel was recognised as extremist by Belarus’ Supreme Court on October 20, 2020. Putilo and Protasevich have both been charged with organising riots and instigating social hatred.
In February 2021, Belarus issues an extradition request for Putilo and Protasevich to Poland, where they were living at the time.
Belarus’ interior ministry confirmed the detention of Protasevich, who faces 15 years in jail on terrorist charges and the possible death penalty if convicted. Belarus has a 99% conviction rate of cases that go to trial.
"Founder of the Nexta Telegram channel Protasevich has been detained at the Minsk airport," the ministry’s organised crime and corruption department wrote on its Telegram channel.
Opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya’s headquarters were quickly informed of the incident and raised the alarm, contacting Ryanair, EU politicians and broadcasting the news on social media.
“It is absolutely obvious that this is an operation of special services to seize the plane in order to detain activist and blogger Raman Protasevich. The regime endangered the safety of passengers on board and all civil aviation in order to retaliate against the man who was the editor of the largest Belarusian independent telegram channels. He was recognised as a terrorist only for that, and only for that now in Belarus Raman can be threatened with the death penalty,” Tikhanovskaya said on twitter.
Tikhanovskaya said her headquarters had already reported the incident to Ryanair's office and the International Civil Aviation Organisation, demanding that an investigation be launched and action taken until Belarus was excluded from ICAO.
"As of today, no one who flies over Belarus can be sure of their safety. After all, the regime abuses the rules of air communication in order to capture dissenters,” Tikhanovskaya said.
The head of the People's Anti-Crisis Administration and member of the Coordinating Council Pavel Latushko called the action of forcing down a commercial passenger plane by military force "an act of military piracy and international terrorism" carried out by "military dictator Lukashenko" and his subordinates. He called for an immediate investigation of the incident.
The reaction from the EU was immediate and outspoken.
“Closely following developments around today’s @Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius, which was forced to land in Minsk over an alleged security threat. This is totally inadmissible,” European Union's top diplomat Josep Borrell said in a tweet as the scandal began to unfold. “We hold the government of Belarus responsible for the security of all passengers and the aircraft. ALL passengers must be able to continue their travel immediately.”
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen was also on the wire condemning the actions of the Belarusian government: “It is utterly unacceptable to force @Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius to land in Minsk. ALL passengers must be able to continue their travel to Vilnius immediately and their safety ensured. Any violation of international air transport rules must bear consequences.”
Berlin demanded “immediate explanations” from Minsk on the situation around the Ryanair flight and Protasevich detention, Miguel Berger, Secretary of State of Germany’s Federal Foreign Office tweeted a few hours later.
"We need an immediate explanation by the Government of Belarus on the diversion of a Ryanair flight within the EU to Minsk and the alleged detention of a journalist," he wrote on his EU imposed sanctions on 40 senior Belarusian officials in October 2020 for organising a brutal police crackdown on protesters and repression of the people by security forces to keep incumbent Lukashenko in power. There were many calls on May 23 for more sanctions to be imposed, but clearly the effect of sanctions on the Belarusian economy are limited and Lukashenko has reached a point where he feels he has little to lose from more, but a lot to gain from further terrorising the population.
The head of RT, Margarita Simonyan, was fast on to Twitter to praise the “old man”, with Belarusian authorities saying she was “envious” of his ability to get things done. RT went with an editorial line similar to Belarus’, accusing Protasevich of inciting riots and hatred.