Pressure mounts on Belarus over forced landing to arrest dissident

Ryanair B737-800

Law enforcers detained activist Roman Protasevich, 26, who had been put on a wanted list after last year's mass street protests following an election in which Mr. Lukashenko claimed a landslide victory.

This is how Slovakia's top politicians responded to the reports on Belarus landing a plane operated by Irish low-priced carrier Ryanair, flying from Athens to Vilnius, to arrest Belarusian journalist Raman Pratasevich, who faces a life sentence or even the death penalty.

In February 2010 Iranian fighter jets intercepted a plane owned by Kyrgyz company Istok-Avia traveling from Dubai to Bishkek and forced it to land at Bandar Abbas airport, where authorities took two passengers off board.

Opposition leaders have called the diversion of the plane that carried dissident journalist Roman Protasevich a "hijacking" by the Belarus authorities and European leaders have condemned the action. They also removed from the plane Pratasevich's Russian girlfriend, Sofia Sapega, who studies at a Vilnius university.

The Lithuanian Foreign Ministry summoned Belarus's top representative in the country to demand the immediate release of all passengers and crew, it said in a statement.

In its first official reaction to the incident, Belarus's foreign ministry insisted the country had acted legally and accused the West of trying to play politics.

The U.S. and the European Union already have imposed sanctions on top Belarusian officials amid months of protests, which were triggered by President Alexander Lukashenko's re-election to a sixth presidential term in an August vote that the opposition rejected as rigged.

Together with co-founder Stepan Putilo he had until recently run the Nexta telegram channel that galvanised and directed huge protests against Lukashenko's disputed re-election to a sixth term in August 2020.

Mr Tugendhat said the Government is "absolutely right" to impose the new rules on flights and asked: "Will he also go one step further and will he call for a suspension of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline and the Yamal energy pipeline that flows through Belarus, which is where the money comes from that supports this tyrannous regime?"

Belarus's main ally Russian Federation showed little concern however, with foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova mocking the Western indignation.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov refused to comment on the incident, saying it was up to worldwide aviation authorities to evaluate what had happened. The incident would draw condemnation from governments around the world and spark a tense confrontation between the European Union and neighboring Belarus.

With close to two million subscribers on Telegram, Nexta Live and its sister channel Nexta are prominent opposition channels and helped mobilise protesters in Belarus.

Journalist Roman Protasevich, who was accused of participating in an unsanctioned protest at the Kuropaty Preserve, arrives for a court hearing in Minsk, Belarus, on April 10, 2017.

Deputy air force commander Andrei Gurtsevich said the plane's crew made the decision to land in Minsk, but Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda claimed the plane was forced to land there.

Mr Protasevich now faces charges which could carry a prison sentence of up to 15 years.

Flight tracking data shows that airlines areavoiding Belarus airspace.

Ryanair's CEO Michael O'Leary described the move as "a case of state-sponsored hijacking. state-sponsored piracy".

In a separate development, President of the European Council Charles Michel has called for an International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) probe into an emergency landing of a Ryanair passenger plane in Minsk.

Mantas was speaking to Reuters after a daylong ordeal that began in Athens and finally ended late in the evening in the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius, after a stopover of more than seven hours in Minsk. He said there's death penalty awaiting him there.