UK condemns Belarus after Ryanair flight 'forced to land' leading to arrest of opposition activist

ITV News Security Editor Rohit Kachroo explains why Belarus's actions on Sunday are so significant

Belarus has been accused of "state terror" after "forcing" a Ryanair plane to land in the country in order to arrest an opposition activist on board. 

Belarus state media said the aircraft – which was travelling from Athens to Lithuania – was switched to Belarus' capital, Minsk, following a bomb threat.

Once the flight had landed Roman Protasevich, an activist and journalist who has helped organise major protests against Belarus' president Alexander Lukashenko, was arrested

A spokesman said President Lukashenko personally ordered that a MiG-29 fighter jet accompany the plane to an airport in Minsk.

President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko has been warned there will be ‘consequences’ following the arrest of journalist Roman Protasevich Credit: Sergei Sheleg/BelTA Pool Photo via AP

Mr Protasevich is a journalist and co-founder of the Telegram messaging app’s Nexta channel, which Belarus last year declared as extremist after it was used to help organise major protests against Mr Lukashenko.

Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said he was “alarmed” by the actions of the Belarus government of President Alexander Lukashenko, who is a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“We are co-ordinating with our allies. This outlandish action by Lukashenko will have serious implications,” he tweeted.

Mr Pratasevich, who had fled the country for 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 over Belarusian territory. Officials later said no explosives were found on board.

Passenger Marius Rutkauskas was on the flight that was diverted.

“I saw this Belarusian guy with girlfriend sitting right behind us. He freaked out when the pilot said the plane is diverted to Minsk. He said there’s death penalty awaiting him there,” he said.

“We sat for an hour after the landing. Then they started releasing passengers and took those two. We did not see them again”.

Tom Tugendhat, chairman of the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, joined counterparts from the US, Ireland, Germany, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Poland and the Czech Republic in condemning the Belarus action as “an act of piracy” and calling for the suspension of all overflights. “This act of state terror and kidnapping is a threat to all those who travel in Europe and beyond. It cannot be allowed to stand,” they said in a joint statement.

EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen called the action "utterly unacceptable".

She tweeted: "It is utterly unacceptable to force Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius to land in Minsk. "ALL passengers must be able to continue their travel to Vilnius immediately and their safety ensured. Any violation of international air transport rules must bear consequences".

Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda said the plane had been forced to land in Belarus, adding the “regime is behind this”.

Meanwhile, Ryanair said in a statement that the aircraft spent five hours on the ground in Minsk after being instructed to divert.

It said: "Ryanair has notified the relevant national and European safety and security agencies and we apologise sincerely to all affected passengers for this regrettable delay, which was outside Ryanair’s control”.

Exiled opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya called on the International Civil Aviation Organisation 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.

“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 Mr Lukashenko a sixth term in office.

Police cracked down on the protests harshly, detaining some 30,000 people and beating many of them.

Although protests died down during the winter, Belarus has continued to take action against the opposition and independent news media. Last week, 11 staff members of news website were detained by police.