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Minsk ‘hijacking’: Swiss call for release of Belarusian journalist

The Ryanair Boeing 737-800 lands at Vilnius International Airport on Sunday. A Ryanair spokeswoman said the aircraft carrying scores of passengers from Athens to Vilnius had been diverted to the Belarusian capital under the escort of a Mig-29 fighter jet after its crew was notified by authorities in Minsk of a 'potential security threat on board'. Keystone / Stringer

The Swiss foreign ministry has joined the European Union and the United States in calling for the release of Roman Protasevich, an opposition-minded activist who was forced off a Ryanair flight between two EU countries on Sunday.

This content was published on May 24, 2021 - 11:26
SRF/Reuters/ts

Belarusian authorities scrambled a fighter jet and flagged what turned out to be a false bomb alert to force a Ryanair plane to land.

In what was described by some EU leaders as a hijacking, the passenger plane flying from Greece to Lithuania was suddenly diverted to Minsk, the capital of Belarus, escorted there by a Soviet-era MiG-29 fighter jet. On its landing, authorities took Protasevich into custody.

The foreign ministry tweeted about “very disturbing news”:

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Swiss public radio, SRF, saidExternal link the foreign ministry had called for Protasevich’s release.

Protasevich had his head in his hands and was shaking when he realised the flight was headed for Minsk, Lithuania’s Delfi news outlet said, quoting a passenger. Later, as he was led away, according to the report, he remarked: “I’ll get the death penalty here.” Reuters could not verify the report.

The 26-year-old journalist worked for Poland-based online news service NEXTA, which broadcast footage of mass protests against Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko last year via the Telegram messenger app at a time when it was hard for foreign media to do so.

Protasevich, who now works for a different Telegram channel called Belamova, is wanted in Belarus on extremism charges and stands accused of organising mass riots and of inciting social hatred, allegations he denies.

Data from the flightradar24.com website showed the plane was diverted just two minutes before it was due to cross into Lithuanian airspace. After seven hours on the ground, the plane took off and finally landed in Vilnius where Lithuanian Prime Minister Ingrida Simonyte was waiting to meet the passengers.

Sanctions

The president of the 27-nation EU’s executive, Ursula von der Leyen, tweeted on Sunday that “the outrageous and illegal behaviour of the regime in Belarus will have consequences”.

The EU has already imposed three rounds of sanctions on Belarus in response to last year’s contested presidential election there, and even before the Ryanair incident had been working on a fourth round targeting senior officials.

Additional sanctions could now include suspending overflights of all EU airlines over Belarus, banning Belarusian airline Belavia from landing at EU airports or suspending all transit, including ground transit, from Belarus to the EU, according to an official for the bloc.

Outrage over the Belarus incident will likely spill over into the discussion the leaders were due to have on Monday about where to take their relationship with Moscow, which has long stood behind Lukashenko.

The EU has trod warily on imposing sanctions on Belarus because of the risk that it would push Lukashenko into even closer ties with Russia.

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