KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — A prominent opponent of Belarus’ authoritarian president was arrested Sunday after the airliner in which he was traveling was diverted to the country after a bomb threat, in what the opposition is calling a hijacking operation by the government.
The presidential press service said President Alexander Lukashenko personally ordered that a MiG-29 fighter jet accompany the Ryanair plane — traveling from Athens, Greece, to Vilnius, Lithuania — to the airport in the capital Minsk.
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.
Belarus’ “regime is behind this,” Nauseda said on Twitter.
The Belarusian Interior Ministry said Raman Pratasevich was arrested at the airport. Pratasevich is a co-founder of the Telegram messaging app’s Nexta channel, which Belarus last year declared as extremist after it was used to help organize major protests against Lukashenko.
Pratasevich, who had fled the country for Poland, faces charges that could carry a prison sentence of up to 15 years.
Sergei Sheleg via AP 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 225 miles south-east of Minsk, Belarus. (Sergei Sheleg/BelTA Pool Photo via AP, File)
The presidential press service said the bomb threat was received while the plane was over Belarusian territory. Officials later said no explosives were found on board. Flight-tracker sites indicate the plane was about 10 kilometers (six) miles from the Lithuanian border when it changed course.
There was no immediate comment from Ryanair.
Exiled opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya called on the International Civil Aviation Organization to begin an investigation.
“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 in a statement. “Not a single person who flies over Belarus can be sure of his safety.”
Months of protests arose after last August’s presidential election that official results say gave Lukashenko a sixth term in office.
Police cracked down on the protests harshly, detaining around 30,000 people and beating many of them.
Although protests died down during the winter, Belarus has continued to take actions against the opposition and independent news media. Last week, 11 staff members of the TUT.by news website were detained by police.