A flight operated by Irish carrier Ryanair from Athens to Vilnius was reportedly forced to land at Minsk, sparking immediate condemnation from the Lithuanian authorities, with other political leaders quickly joining in.
Aboard the flight was Raman Pratasevich, an anti-Lukashenko campaigner and journalist. He is believed to have been taken into custody by the Belarusian authorities who apparently used a bomb threat as a pretext to force the plane down having sent a fighter jet to intercept it.
However, LSM's Latvian-language service reports that Lina Beišiene, a representative of the Lithuanian airport operator Lietuvos oroostasai, told the BNS news agency that she did not have any information about a bomb threat, and the plane was diverted to Minsk due to a conflict between passengers and crew members.
Thaddeus Gichan, an editor with the Nexta news agency for which Pratasevich wrote, said on Twitter that employees of the Belarusian State Security Committee had apparently boarded the plane in Athens, and provoked a conflict with the crew when it was over Belarusian airspace to provide a pretext for its landing.
The exact circumstances remain unclear.
Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda quickly condemned the act as an "unprecendented event".
Unprecedented event! A civilian passenger plane flying to Vilnius was forcibly landed in #Minsk. Belarusian political activist & founder of @NEXTA_EN was on the plane. He is arrested. 🇧🇾 regime is behind the abhorrent action. I demand to free Roman Protasevič urgently!— Gitanas Nausėda (@GitanasNauseda) May 23, 2021
According to Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkēvičs, two people under Latvian protection (which includes both citizens and non-citizens) are believed to be among the passengers. Earlier, he said forcing the plane to land in Minsk had been "contrary to international law".
This is completely unacceptable and contrary to the international law. Plane and ALL passangers must be released immediately and should continue to their destination. International reaction must be strong and effective https://t.co/BmleIF2BFb— Edgars Rinkēvičs (@edgarsrinkevics) May 23, 2021
Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis provided more details about the passenger roster.
In total there was 171 passenger on flight. We have information about 149 passengers. Among them - 1 AT, 1 BE, 1 BG, 1 CY, 3 DE, 1 ESP, 9 FRA, 1 GEO, 11 GR , 94 LT, 2 LV, 4 PL, 5 RO, 4BY, 3 RF, 1 GEO, 2 SYR, 1 NGA citizens. All 171 need to be released immediately.— Gabrielius Landsbergis (@GLandsbergis) May 23, 2021
Landsbergis later confirmed that after being released by the Belarusian authorities the plane finally touched down in Vilnius Sunday night, though it was not immediately apparent how many people had been removed in Minsk.
Calls for a strong European reponse were gathering pace Sunday evening with Rinkēvičs among those advocating shutting down Belarusian airspace to all international flights.
Today’s hijacking of #Ryanair flight by Lukashenko regime shows that Belarusian airspace is not safe, people’s lives were put at risk and kidnaping of a political opponent took place. Belarusian airspace must be closed for all international flights.— Edgars Rinkēvičs (@edgarsrinkevics) May 23, 2021