Belarus forces Ryanair plane to land to detain opposition blogger

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko ordered a Ryanair flight with a key opposition blogger and flew to Lithuania on Sunday to land in the Belarusian capital, Minsk. He was arrested upon arrival, officials and lawyers said.

Law enforcement agencies arrested activist Roman Protasevich, who was put on a wanted list following mass street protests last year following an election in which Lukashenko won a landslide victory.

The plane, which was flying from Athens to Vilnius via Belarus, had almost reached Lithuania when it changed direction and was escorted to Minsk after reports of explosives were on board, according to an online flight tracker and BelTA.

No explosives were found, BelTA said.

The Belarusian Organized Crime Control Department also reported that Protasevich had been arrested, but then deleted the statement from their telegram channel.

Ryanair and the Lithuanian Foreign Ministry had no immediate comment.

Lukashenko personally ordered the fighter plane to escort the Ryanair Boeing to Minsk, the state-run BelTA news agency reported.

Lukashenko, who has been in power since 1994, launched violent crackdown on street protests in 2020. Around 35,000 people have been detained since August, according to human rights groups. Dozens have received prison terms. Authorities say more than 1,000 criminal cases have been opened.

A spokeswoman for the Lithuanian airport authority told Reuters that the plane, which is scheduled to land in Vilnius at 11 a.m. GMT, has been diverted to Minsk due to a conflict between the crew and a passenger.

The plane was scheduled to land in Vilnius from Minsk at 1500 GMT, she said.

Protasevich is one of the founders of the opposition intelligence service NEXTA, a telegram channel that has become one of the main sources of news about demonstrations in Belarus. It is hostile to Lukashenko and helps coordinate protests.

Belarusian opposition politician Svetlana Tikhanouskaya, Lukashenko’s main rival in the last election, said the Belarusian authorities had “endangered the safety of passengers on board and civil aviation as a whole in order to punish the man who was the editor of the largest independent telegram channel in Belarus.” . “

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