May 23 (UPI) — Belarus’ Lukashenko regime forced a flight en route from Greece to Lithuania to land within its borders on Sunday and arrested an opposition journalist on board, inciting worldwide anger and accusations of committing terrorism by hijacking a civilian plane.
The press service for President Alexander Lukashenko confirmed via Telegram that he gave the order for the plane, which was en route from Athens to Vilnius, to land at its capital of Minsk while being escorted by a MiG-29 fighter jet.
Belarus public broadcaster reported the Minsk National Airport said the plane was diverted due to a bomb threat, and officials were now conducting verification measures.
Upon landing on the tarmac, exiled journalist Roman Protasevich was detained, local independent news organization Belsat reported.
“The regime forced the landing Ryanair plane in Minsk to arrest journalist and activist Roman Protasevich,” Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the exiled leader of the democratic Belarus movement, said in a statement. “He faces the death penalty in Belarus.”
The arrest is the latest by the Lukashenko regime who has been targeting oppositional leaders and media since August’s presidential election, in which Lukashenko won a sixth term in office despite widespread international condemnation of the contest being neither fair nor free.
Protesters who subsequently took to the streets were met with an increasingly bloody crackdown that forced opposition leaders to flee to exile.
Tsikhanouskaya, who exiled to Lithuania, said the 26-year-old reporter covered the election and following protests with security forces opening several criminal cases against him and listing him as a terrorist, for which if convicted he could be sentenced to death.
“We demand immediate release of Roman, [International Civil Aviation Organization] investigation and sanctions against Belarus,” she said.
In a statement, the ICAO, a United Nations organization, said the forced landing of Ryanair Flight FR4978 was in contravention of the Chicago Convention, which concerns maintaining order between nations over civil aviation.
The arrest has prompted widespread international condemnation with the European Union stating it will meet Tuesday to discuss what action it will take. The bloc has already imposed three rounds of sanctions since the August election, blacklisting 88 people and seven entities.
“The outrageous and illegal behavior of the regime in Belarus will have consequences,” EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said on Twitter. “Those responsible for the Ryanair hijacking must be sanctioned. Journalist Roman Protasevich must be released immediately.”
Mateusz Morawiecki, the prime minister of Poland, said he will demand immediate sanctions against the Lukashenko regime, calling the plane’s hijacking “an unprecedented act of state terrorism,” while Gitanas Nauseda, the president of Lithuania, said he will suggest for airspace over Belarus to be recognized as unsafe and for Belarusian aircraft to be denied landing at EU airports.
In the United States, which has repeatedly blacklisted Belarusian officials and entities since the August election, Secretary of State Antony Blinken condemned the “shocking act” of diverting the plane and putting at risk its 120 passengers, including U.S. citizens, while demanding Protasevich to be immediately released.
“The United States once again condemns the Lukashenko regime’s ongoing harassment and arbitrary detention of journalists,” the United States’ top diplomat said in a statement. “We stand with the Belarusian people in their aspirations for a free, democratic and prosperous future and support their call for the regime to respect human rights and fundamental freedoms.”