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European Union to cut air links with Belarus following flight diversion incident

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What was behind a passenger plane's diversion to Belarus

Belarus's opposition called Tuesday for more pressure on strongman Alexander Lukashenko as Europe moved to cut air links with the country over the extraordinary diversion of an airliner and arrest of a dissident on board.

Belarus's strongman leader Alexander Lukashenko sparked global outrage by dispatching a fighter jet Sunday to intercept the Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius carrying Protasevich, 26, and his girlfriend Sofia Sapega.

Protasevich and a 23-year-old student traveling with him were arrested after their Ryanair flight was escorted by a Belarusian warplane while flying from Greece to Lithuania.

The pilot then questioned the origin of the bomb threat, to which Minsk said airport security had received it via email.

Many members of the Belarusian government are already under European Union sanctions because of last year's crackdown following the disputed August presidential election.

In a video posted online, the detained blogger, Roman Protasevich, 26, said he was in good health, being held in a pretrial detention facility in Minsk, and acknowledged having played a role in organising mass disturbances in the capital a year ago.

Lithuanian authorities said five passengers never arrived, suggesting three others besides detainees Protasevich and Sapega had disembarked in Minsk.

Belarus has defended its actions and its Transport Ministry said Tuesday that it has invited representatives of the global aviation organization and USA and European Union authorities to investigate the flight's diversion. He said that Pratasevich's brief appearance on Belarus state television Monday night "was not reassuring, given the apparent bruising to his face, and the strong likelihood that his appearance was not voluntary and his "confession" to serious crimes was forced".

RyanAir CEO Michael O'Leary told Irish radio on Monday that the incident was essentially "state-sponsored hijacking". They reiterated this claim in Tuesday's statement. He did not explain why Hamas would have sent the message only to Minsk airport or why it would demand a ceasefire days after one had already begun.

European leaders have dismissed the Belarusian explanations, in fact, before Monday's summit, Germany's leader, Angela Merkel, called them "totally implausible". The channel and another NEXTA Live have over 2 million subscribers and during the protests helped coordinate demonstrations and published videos of them and of police violence that helped catalyze the peaceful uprising against Lukashenko.

Protasevich has left NEXTA and now runs his own popular blog.

Protasevich's father Dmitry Protasevich told AFP in Poland that he had not been able to contact his son since Saturday and that he did not appear himself in the video.

"I want to say just that my son - he's a hero". "I truly hope that the global community will wake up for him". "It's very hard for me", she said, her voice cracking.

"The United States joins countries around the world in calling for his release, as well as for the release of the hundreds of political prisoners who are being unjustly detained by the Lukashenka regime", Biden said.

On Monday night Pete Buttigieg, the United States secretary of transportation, said in a statement: "We strongly condemn the actions the Belarusian government took to force the diversion of a Ryanair flight for the apparent goal of arresting journalist Roman Pratasevich".

"There must be an immediate, international, transparent, and credible investigation of this incident", Buttigieg added. Exiled opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya said it proved Protasevich had been tortured.

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