The founder of a messaging application channel that has been a key news channel for opponents of the authoritarian president of Belarus has been arrested after a plane he was traveling on was diverted to the capital, Minsk, due to a bomb threat.
The presidential press service said President Alexander Lukashenko personally ordered a MiG-29 fighter jet to accompany Ryanair’s plane – which was traveling on Sunday from Athens, Greece, to Vilnius, Lithuania – to the Minsk airport.
The Belarusian Interior Ministry said Raman Pratasevich was arrested at the airport. Pratasevich is co-founder of the Nexta channel of the messaging application Telegram, which Belarus declared last year as “extremist” after it was used to help organize large protests against Lukashenko.
Pratasevich, who had fled the country to Poland, faces charges that could carry a prison sentence of up to 15 years.
The presidential press service said the bomb threat was received while the plane was on Belarusian territory; officials later said no explosives were found on board.
There were no immediate comments from Ryanair.
Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda demanded the release of Protasevich from Belarus.
“Unprecedented event! A civilian passenger plane flying to Vilnius forcibly landed in #Minsk, “Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda said on Twitter.
“The Belarusian political activist and founder of @NEXTA_EN was on the plane. He is under arrest. The regime is behind the unpleasant action. I demand the release of Roman Protasevic urgently!” Nauseda added.
Unprecedented event. A civilian passenger plane flying to Vilnius landed by force #Minsk. Belarusian political activist and founder of @NEXTA_EN was on the plane. He is arrested. 🇧🇾 The regime is behind the horrible action. I demand the release of Roman Protasevič urgently!
– Gitanas Nausėda (@GitanasNauseda) May 23, 2021
He also urged NATO and the European Union to “react immediately to the threat posed by the Belarusian regime to international civil aviation” in a separate statement issued by his office.
“I will talk about it tomorrow at the EU summit in Brussels,” Nauseda said.
The European Union said on Sunday that all passengers on board the Ryanair plane should be allowed to resume their journeys immediately.
“All passengers must be able to continue their journey to Vilnius immediately and their safety has been ensured,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said on Twitter.
“Any violation of international air transport standards must have consequences,” he added
Opposition leader in exile Svetlana Tikhanovskaya called on the International Civil Aviation Organization to launch an investigation.
“It is absolutely clear that this is a special services operation to hijack a plane to arrest activist and blogger Raman Pratasevich,” he said in a statement. “Not a single person flying over Belarus can be sure of their safety.”
A member of Nexta’s team, Tadeusz Giczan, said on Twitter that representatives of the Belarusian security agency were traveling with Protasevich.
“Then, when the plane entered Belarusian airspace, KGB agents started a fight with the Ryanair crew insisting that there was an FDI on board,” he said.
Last year, Protasevich, 26, and Nexta co-founder Stepan Putilo, 22, were added to the list of “individuals involved in terrorist activities” in Belarus.
The two bloggers, who live in Poland, were added to the list based on previous allegations of causing mass unrest, a crime that can lead to up to 15 years in prison.
They also face accusations of inciting social hatred against government officials and law enforcement and have been added to international search lists in Belarus and Russia, an ally of President Lukashenko.
Nexta Live and its sister channel Nexta, with nearly two million subscribers to the Telegram messenger, are prominent voices of the Belarusian opposition and helped mobilize protesters.
In October, Belarus labeled the Nexta Telegram channel and its logo as “extremist” and ordered it blocked. Posting channel information is punishable by a fine.
The Baltic state of the EU, Lithuania, granted refugee status to Protasevich after a bloody crackdown in Belarus following the disputed elections last August. Tikhanovskaya also fled to Lithuania and is still there.
Belarus saw unprecedented mass protests after Lukashenko demanded a sixth term in August last year in a vote that the opposition and Western diplomats said were manipulated.
Police cracked down on protesters and arrested some 30,000 people and beat many.
Although the protests disappeared during the winter, Belarus has continued to take action against the opposition and the independent media. Last week, 11 staff members of the news website TUT.by were arrested by police.
The EU and the United States have sanctioned Lukashenko and dozens of government-linked officials and businessmen with asset freezes and visa bans.