Riga, May 23 (EFE).- A Ryanair plane covering the Athens-Vilnius route with around 120 people on board on Sunday was diverted and forced to land in the Belarusian capital of Minsk, where a wanted journalist who had been critical of the government reportedly was arrested.
Roman Protasevich, a close associate of Belarusian exiled opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, had fled the country and had been living in Lithuania.
He co-founded the Internet Telegram NEXTA platform that covered the police crackdown on massive protests that swept Belarus following the controversial re-election of President Alexander Lukashenko in August 2020.
Protasevich was labeled a terrorist by the authorities and could face the death penalty, according to social media users.
Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis considered the incident to be “disturbing news” while former Swedish Prime Minister Carl Bildt described the diversion of the plane as an act of “piracy.”
“The Ryanair flight was just about to enter Lithuanian airspace. If there had been a real emergency Vilnius was clearly the (closest) airport,” Bildt posted to his Twitter account.
There have been conflicting reports on why the plane, which was flying in Belarusian airspace and just minutes from crossing the Lithuanian border, was diverted to Minsk instead of proceeding to the Lithuanian capital, which was about the same distance.
A Belarusian opposition source wrote on social media that the airliner was approached by a Belarusian Mig-29 fighter and essentially was forced to land.
Flight tracking Web sites showed that the Ryanair plane turned sharply just before it entered Lithuania’s airspace, thereafter heading towards Minsk.
Other reports said that the Ryanair flight crew had been informed of a bomb threat on the plane.
A Vilnius airport spokesman told EFE that the Minsk airport had informed them that the flight had been diverted to Belarus due to an unspecified conflict between the plane’s crew and passengers.