Journalist Arrested After Plane Forced Down in Belarus

Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko

In this Monday April 26, 2021 file photo, Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko, accompanied by officials, attends a requiem rally on the occasion of the 35th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster in the town of Bragin, some 360 km (225 miles) south-east of Minsk, Belarus.

A founder of a messaging app channel that has been a key information conduit for opponents of Belarus' authoritarian president was arrested Sunday after an airliner in which he was traveling on was diverted to Belarus because of a bomb threat.

European leaders reacted with fury as it emerged that a flight between two EU countries -Greece and Lithuania - had been diverted and an opposition activist among its passengers arrested.

After seven hours on the ground in Minsk, the plane took off and finally landed in Vilnius where Lithuanian Prime Minister Ingrida Simonyte was waiting to meet the passengers, based on Reuters report.

A witness told AFP that Protasevich told fellow passengers he would face the death penalty.

He subsequently fled to Poland and now faces charges which could carry a prison sentence of up to 15 years.

In November 2020, the Prosecutor General's Office of Belarus applied to the Ministry of Justice of Poland with a request to arrest him and extradite him to prosecute as defendants in the case of riots in Belarus.

"The plane had a total of 171 passengers on board, 11 of whom are Greek citizens".

Exiled opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya called on the International Civil Aviation Organisation to begin an investigation.

Belarusian opposition journalist Roman Protasevich arrives for a court hearing in Minsk, Belarus, April 10, 2017. 'Not a single person who flies over Belarus can be sure of his safety'.

There are few remaining sources of independent news in Belarus, where most media outlets were forced to shut down after widespread protests over a disputed presidential election in 2020.

"We welcome the safe landing of the Ryanair flight to its original destination - Vilnius [and] are happy for the people onboard", stated the Georgian Foreign Ministry.

Lithuania and Latvia have called for global flights not to use Belarusian airspace.

The charges under investigation include hijacking of a plane for terrorism purposes and treatment of humans in violation of global treaties, it said in the statement.

It was not immediately clear who reported the bomb threat. Tikhanovskaya said in her telegram channel.

The Ryanair commercial flight was directed to land "by force", the president said in an emailed statement. "The worldwide community must take immediate steps that this does not repeat", the president said.

He promised to discuss this on Monday at an European Union summit. "Consequences and possible sanctions will be discussed at this occasion".

Mateusz Morawiecki, the prime minister of Belarus's neighbor Poland, urged sanctions against Lukashenko for committing an "act of state terrorism".

Belarus' forced landing of Ryanair plane sparks in. He called for the release of Pratasevich and for the Council of the International Civil Aviation Organization to review the incident.

"I condemn in the strongest terms the detention of Roman Protasevich by Belarusian authorities, after a Ryanair passenger aircraft was hijacked".

"It means that more than one person was (taken) out of the plane - but (it's) hard to say exactly".

The US state department called the forced diversion a "shocking act". "We demand his immediate release", Blinken said in a statement. "This shocking act perpetrated by the Lukashenka regime endangered the lives of more than 120 passengers, including USA citizens".