KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — A prominent opponent of Belarus
’ authoritarian president was arrested Sunday after his plane was diverted to the country due to a bomb threat, in what the opposition calls a government hijacking operation.
According to the presidential press service, President Alexander Lukashenko
personally ordered that a MiG-29 fighter jet accompany the Ryanair flight from Athens, Greece, to Vilnius, Lithuania, to the Minsk airport.
The plane's crew made the decision to land in Minsk, according to Deputy Air Force Commander Andrei Gurtsevich, but Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda claims the plane was forced to land there.
Belarus' "regime" is behind this, according to Nauseda on Twitter
According to the Belarusian Interior Ministry, Raman Pratasevich
was detained at the airport. Pratasevich is a co-founder of the Telegram messaging app's Nexta channel, which Belarus declared extremist last year after it was used to help organize major protests against Lukashenko.
Pratasevich, who fled to Poland, is facing charges that could result in a 15-year prison sentence.
The presidential press service stated that the bomb threat was received while the plane was over Belarusian territory, but officials later stated that no explosives were found on board. Flight-tracking sites show that the plane was about 10 kilometers (six miles) from the Lithuanian border
when it changed course.
Ryanair did not respond right away.
Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, an exiled opposition leader, has requested that an investigation
be launched by the International Civil Aviation Organization.
“It is absolutely clear that this is a special services operation to hijack an aircraft in order to detain activist and blogger Raman Pratasevich,” she said in a statement, adding that “not a single person flying
over Belarus can be certain of his safety.”
Months of protests erupted in the aftermath of last August's presidential election
, which official results show gave Lukashenko a sixth term.
The protests were met with harsh repression by police
, who detained approximately 30,000 people
and beat many of them.
Despite the fact that protests have subsided over the winter, Belarus has continued to target the opposition and independent news media
, with police detaining 11 staff members of the TUT.by news website last week.