update(9:30pm): It didn't take long for a flurry of condemnations from both EU and US officials in the hours after the Ryanair incident over Belarus, with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken calling for opposition journalist Raman Pratasevich's immediate release. Multiple EU leaders described Sunday's detention of Pratasevich after his commercial aircraft with 170 international passengers on board (including Americans, apparently) was diverted to Minsk complete with Belarusian MiG fighter escort as tantamount to "hijacking a civilian plane"...
"Hijacking of a civilian plane is an unprecedented act of state terrorism. It cannot go unpunished," Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki wrote on Twitter.
And Greece's Foreign Ministry agreed (the aircraft had departed from Athens en route to Lithuania), calling the incident "state hijacking": "Greece strongly condemns the state hijacking that took place today and resulted in the forced landing of Ryanair FR 4978, which operated the Athens-Vilnius route, in Minsk, Belarus," the statement said.
Top EU officials were unanimous in their outrage and condemnation...
The outrageous and illegal behaviour of the regime in Belarus will have consequences.— Ursula von der Leyen (@vonderleyen) May 23, 2021
Those responsible for the #Ryanair hijacking must be sanctioned.
Journalist Roman Protasevich must be released immediately.
EUCO will discuss tomorrow action to take.
The US statement from Secretary Blinken underscored that there had been Americans on board:
"This shocking act perpetrated by the Lukashenka regime endangered the lives of more than 120 passengers, including U.S. citizens," he said late in the day Sunday.
JUST IN: US Sec of State Blinken condemns #Belarus’ Lukashenko regime forced downing of Ryanair flight & arrest of journalist Roman Protasevich. Says US coordinating response with EU.— Joyce Karam (@Joyce_Karam) May 23, 2021
Notice US calls it “forced diversion” of ✈️, EU using “State Hijacking”: pic.twitter.com/2JeLaw2o9T
"Initial reports suggesting the involvement of the Belarusian security services and the use of Belarusian military aircraft to escort the plane are deeply concerning and require full investigation," the US statement added.
But at the same time some are pointing to some not-so-distant history where US and European allies did essentially the same thing...
Serious question:— Maxim A. Suchkov (@m_suchkov) May 23, 2021
Those who [rightly!] complain about #Lukashenko's landing of the airplane to get the #NEXTA guy - how is this different from the 2013 incident when the jet of #Bolivia's Morales was forced to land in #Austria to be searched for @Snowden?https://t.co/1s3qHMRuiE
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A bizarre and alarming incident which officials are calling unprecedented unfolded over the skies of Eastern Europe on Sunday. A Ryanair flight which had departed Athens and was en route to Vilnius - the capital of Lithuania - was forced to land in Belarus to allow state intelligence and security services to detain a journalist who's long been critical of President Alexander Lukashenko.
Bloomberg has identified the detained journalist is Raman Pratasevich, described as "the former editor-in-chief of the most popular Telegram news channel in Belarus" who was "arrested in the Minsk airport after the plane landed, according to the Minsk-based human rights center Viasna, which is not officially registered by the country’s authorities."
A Ryanair flight #FR4978 from Athens to Vilnius, diverted to Minsk in Belarus earlier today.https://t.co/rnUpiqOjch— Flightradar24 (@flightradar24) May 23, 2021
According to reports in media a Belarus journalist, that was onboard the flight, was arrested after the diversion to Minsk. pic.twitter.com/MQyvXsDExM
Neighboring Lithuania had earlier issued Pratasevich asylum after Belarusian authorities had put him on a "terror watch list" related to his journalistic activities, given the 26-year old blogger and activist helped spearhead last year's anti-Lukashenko demonstrations which at times shut down large parts of central Minsk following the disputed August 2020 election which resulted in prolonging the autocrat's rule to a sixth term (which will see him into three decades in power).
The journalist has been dubbed an "extremist" for his role in covering and participating in protests which officials also alleged there was a "foreign hand" behind which had covert NATO support. Pratasevich now faces a severe sentence - if he even goes to trial at all, with some supporters going so far as to suggest a possible death penalty case.
Astoundingly, Belarus' military had scrambled MiG fighter jets in order to divert the plane to Minsk. Bloomberg continues, "The plane, which was flying over Belarus en route to Lithuania, was escorted to Minsk by a MiG-29 fighter jet after a bomb threat, Belarusian state news agency Belta reported, citing the Minsk airport’s press service."
The regime forced the landing @Ryanair plane in Minsk to arrest journalist and activist Raman Pratasevich. He faces the death penalty in Belarus. We demand immediate release of Raman, @ICAO investigation, and sanctions against Belarus. pic.twitter.com/ondPBd0kU9— Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya (@Tsihanouskaya) May 23, 2021
The bomb threat, however, is being widely perceived as but a ruse which ensured the plane would be on Belarusian soil in order to facilitate the controversial detention.
Germany's Deutsche Welle details:
An airport spokesperson told the agency that although authorities did not find any explosive devices on the plane, it was unclear when it would be allowed to take off again.
The opposition Telegram channel Nexta also reported that the plane was searched and that authorities detained the outlet's former editor, Roman Protasevich.
"The plane was checked, no bomb was found and all passengers were sent for another security search," said Nexta. "Among them was... Nexta journalist Roman Protasevich. He was detained."
The episode is quickly gaining international attention and raising alarm in NATO and the European Union, with Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda issuing a statement on Twitter condemning the "unprecedented" and "abhorrent" action of Lukashenko's government.
President Nauseda also said in a written statement released to international press agencies that: "I call on NATO and EU allies to immediately react to the threat posed to international civil aviation by the Belarus regime." He added, "The international community must take immediate steps that this does not repeat."
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
Also interesting will be the added pressure on both Belarus and Lukashenko-ally Putin over the brazen intervention in a foreign airline's flight path (Ryanair DAC is based in Ireland and did not immediately comment in the hours after the incident), given especially the two leaders are expected to meet again in Sochi this week, Rossiya-1 television reported.
Putin has been widely seen in the West as enabling Lukashenko's dictatorial rule, with Russian officials also seeing recent protests in the former Soviet satellite state as West-backed 'color revolution' activity fueled by external powers designed to expand NATO influence by seeking overthrow of Russia-friendly governments.