European leaders are vowing to punish Belarus for illegally diverting to Minsk Sunday a Lithuanian-bound Ryanair flight carrying a fugitive critic of Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko.
Their fury was fueled as more details emerged Monday of the dramatic events leading up to the diversion of the plane. The Ryanair Boeing 737 was carrying 171 passengers and crew had taken off from Athens and was flying over Belarus. It was just moments from leaving Belarusian air space when the captain was signaled by the pilot of a Belarus MiG-29 jet to land in the Belarus capital and not to proceed to the scheduled destination, Vilnius, Lithuania’s capital.
When the plane landed in Minsk, Belarusian security service officers detained 26-year-old opposition blogger Raman Pratasevich, who could face a death sentence on charges of helping to organize protests against President Lukashenko. Just before the aircraft landed, he gave his laptop and cell phone to a friend for safekeeping, passengers told reporters in Vilnius.
Pratasevich’s girlfriend, Sofia, was also detained. And reports emerged Monday of another detainee.
The plan to seize Pratasevich, who has lived in exile since 2019, also appears to have involved the participation of Belarusian KGB agents, who were present at the departure airport at Athens and boarded the jet, according to opposition activists.
WATCH: RFE/RL Interview with father of detained Belarus journalist
The Greek Foreign Ministry released a statement Sunday describing the forced landing as a “state hijacking” which “put the lives of all the passengers on board in danger.” That view was echoed by US. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who dubbed the illegal diversion in a statement as “a shocking act.”
Blinken said the “regime endangered the lives of more than 120 passengers, including US citizens. Initial reports suggesting the involvement of the Belarusian security services and the use of Belarusian military aircraft to escort the plane are deeply concerning and require full investigation,” he added.
In an online post before leaving Athens, Pratasevich said he was being trailed by KGB agents. “This was some suspicious crap,” he wrote. “When the plane entered Belarus airspace KGB officers initiated a fight with the Ryanair crew, insisting that there was an improvised explosive device onboard,” Tadeusz Giczan, an editor at the activist Telegram site Nexta, tweeted.
“Eventually the crew was forced to send out an SOS, literally moments before the plane would have left Belarusian airspace. A MiG-29 took off and escorted it to Minsk,” he said. There were also local reports that an Mi-24 helicopter gunship was used in the operation.
Ryanair said in a statement that the crew was also told by Belarus aviation authorities of a “potential security threat on board” and ordered the plane to Minsk, even though Vilnius was nearer. On landing, all the passengers were searched and the flight was allowed to resume its journey five hours later.
Rynair’s CEO, Michael O’Leary, also said he believes that Belarus KGB agents were on board the flight. In an interview Monday with a British radio broadcaster, he said: “It appears the intent of the authorities was to remove a journalist and his traveling companion. We believe there were some KGB agents offloaded at the airport as well.”
On Monday, it also emerged that along with Pratasevich and his girlfriend, a Russian citizen studying at the European Humanities University, EHU, in Lithuania, was forced off the flight, too. EHU has demanded her release, saying she was detained by the Minsk Investigative Committee on “groundless and made-up conditions.”
EU leaders will discuss the case at a summit Monday, European Council President Charles Michel. “The incident will not remain without consequences,” he added in a statement.
“Possible sanctions” would be on the table, his spokesperson said. They could include barring Belarusian airlines from over-flying EU states or landing at the bloc’s airports and suspending all flights of EU airlines through Belarusian airspace. Ground transit from Belarus into the EU could also be prohibited, say EU officials.
Since the August 2020 presidential election in Belarus, which was officially won by Lukashenko but were widely condemned as rigged and sparked huge protests across Belarus, the EU has imposed a series of sanctions on the country.
Lithuanian prosecutors say they are launching a criminal investigation into the hijacking and are considering filing terrorism charges. Lithuania’s prime minister told reporters that the prosecutors interviewed passengers and crew on their arrival in Vilnius. “The unprecedented situation will have to be investigated very thoroughly,” Ingrida Simonyte said.
Belarus public broadcasters said security officials only discovered Pratasevich was on the flight after his girlfriend sent a photo of him to another activist blogger. Pratasevich, who used to work for the Telegram channel Nexta but switched to another opposition messaging app recently, was in Athens to cover a visit to Greece by Belarus opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya.
“It is absolutely obvious that this is an operation by the special services to hijack an aircraft in order to detain activist and blogger Raman Pratasevich,” she said. “Not a single person who flies over Belarus can be sure of his safety,” she added in a statement.
Of the 171 people who boarded in Athens, only 165 landed in Vilnius, according to Lithuanian authorities. Pratasevich, his girlfriend and the EHU students account for three of the six who did not proceed to Vilnius.
The other three are likely Belarus KGB agents, say Lithuanian officials, but there are also local reports that at least two were Russians, prompting speculation in the Belarus opposition media that they may have been Russian intelligence officers.