Belarus accused of grounding plane to arrest prominent opponent authoritarian president

BREAKING NEWS Belarus makes Athens to Vilnius plane land to arrest journalist 1

Nexta claims that Belarus called in a false bomb scare in order to get the Ryanair flight to land in Minsk.

The move comes amid an intensifying crackdown following historic demonstrations that gripped the ex-Soviet country after a disputed presidential election a year ago.

"The plane was checked, no bomb was found and all passengers were sent for another security search", said Nexta, a Belarus opposition channel on the Telegram messaging app, which Protasevich previously edited.

Minsk airport said a Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius was forced to land because of a bomb threat. "Among them was... Nexta journalist Roman Protasevich".

It added that Protasevich said he was followed before boarding the flight.

After hours grounded in Belarus, the flight was able to continue on its journey, landing in Vilnius at 1825 GMT, the airport's online arrivals board said.

Belarusian state television reported that Roman Protasevich, a 26-year-old opposition blogger exiled in Poland, had been detained in Minsk after flight FR4978 was diverted from European Union airspace - ostensibly over a security scare.

A Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius, Lithuania was forced to land in Belarus to allegedly facilitate the arrest of a dissident to President Alexander Lukashenko on Sunday.

"Ryanair has notified the relevant national and European safety and security agencies and we apologise sincerely to all affected passengers for this regrettable delay which was outside Ryanair's control", it highlighted, making no mention of Protasevich.

The opposition leader herself has been based in Lithuania after fleeing Belarus last summer, after apparent threats to her children.

Ursula von der Leyen, the head of the European Commission, said Belarus's action was "utterly unacceptable", while British foreign minister Dominic Raab said there would be serious implications for what he called "outlandish action". "Any violation of global air transport rules must bear consequences". Lithuania is a popular destination for Belarusian dissidents, and exiled opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya has made the Baltic country her home since fleeing Minsk a year ago.

The flight had 171 passengers from 12 countries on board, including 90 Lithuanians, Lithuanian presidential adviser Asta SkaisgirytÄ— said at a press conference. Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki called the incident a "hijacking" and called for immediate sanctions on Belarus.

"I condemn in the strongest terms the detention of Roman Protasevich by Belarusian authorities, after a Ryanair passenger aircraft was hijacked. This is a reprehensible act of state terrorism", he said.

Similar statements have also been made by French and German officials.

A spokeswoman for state company Lithuanian Airports, Lina Beisine, told AFP that Minsk airport had said the flight was redirected "due to a conflict between a member of the crew and the passengers".

Belarus a year ago designated Nexta an extremist organisation and has called for his extradition from Poland, where the channel's editorial team is based.