KIEV—Add "military piracy and act of international terror" to the growing list of crimes Belarus president Aleksandr Lukashenko has committed, said former Belarus ambassador and culture minister Pavel Latushko on Sunday.
Latushko, speaking from Warsaw, is one of the leaders of the anti-Lukashenko opposition government-in-exile. He was referring to Sunday’s incident in
which an Irish airline Ryanair flight from Athens, Greece, to Vilnius, Lithuania, was forced to land in Belarus.
The Belarus state-run news agency Belta reported that Lukashenko personally gave the order for the airliner to be forced down in Minsk and launched a
Mikoyan MiG-29 fighter aircraft to intercept the flight. At the time, the Ryanair flight was only two minutes from the Lithuanian border. But the aircraft was
forced to alter course when Belarus air traffic control dispatchers told the flight crew there was possibly a bomb on board and ordered the crew to land
at Minsk-2 airport.
The forced landing comes as Belarus president Lukashenko has escalated repressive measures in the country. Lukashenko is under siege by a nationwide popular revolt after he declared reelection for a sixth term in office in August 2020 despite widespread evidence of election fraud.
The MiG-29 was not configured for a standard escort mission. Instead, it was armed for an air defense intercept scramble with missiles which could have destroyed the airliner completely in the event of an accidental misfire.
"For the Ryanair pilots this must have felt like someone was holding a gun to his head," a Ukrainian military pilot told the Washington Free Beacon. "This
cavalier use of a fighter aircraft with a full combat load put everyone on board that passenger aircraft in danger." Several of the passengers were also U.S.
The Belarus state security service—the only former USSR republic secret police agency that retains the Soviet-era moniker of "KGB"—had all
passengers disembark so they could arrest two individuals: Roman Protasevich, a 26-year-old dissident Belarus journalist and blogger, and his girlfriend, Sophia Sapega, who had traveled with him to Greece. Both were taken into custody and their whereabouts remain unconfirmed.
Protasevich had left Belarus in 2019 due to threats by the KGB over his pro-democracy campaigning, for which the government had labeled him a
"terrorist" and a "private enemy" of Lukashenko. His activities abroad included running opposition media platforms like the NEXTA and NEXTA Live
channels on the popular Telegram mobile phone app, which have provided wall-to-wall coverage of the anti-Lukashenko protests that began last year.
Passengers who witnessed him being detained reported him as being calm but very distraught. When asked who he was and why the authorities singled him out he explained his identity and then reportedly added, "the death penalty awaits me here."
Protasevich had messaged his colleagues earlier on Sunday to report he had been tailed to the Athens airport. He later texted that a Russian-speaking man had followed him closely as he checked in and that the same man had tried to photograph his documents. These were the last messages anyone received from him.
Protasevich’s coworkers at the NEXTA operation are almost all in exile abroad and say they have been threatened by Belarus security agents even though
they reside in other sovereign states. Last year NEXTA channel founder Stepan Svetlov told the Guardian, "We get [threats] all the time. They say they’re going to blow the office up, they say they’re going to kidnap us and drive us back to Belarus."
On Monday, Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary said, "We believe there were some KGB agents [on board the flight who] offloaded at the airport as well." This
appears to be confirmation of reports that four other passengers suspected of having boarded the flight in Athens in order to follow Protasevich also left the
flight after the falsely prompted emergency landing in Minsk.
Reaction has been swift with numerous EU heads of state and European officials calling for punitive measures. Neighboring Latvia and Lithuania are
insisting on Belarus airspace being closed to all international air traffic. EU Commission head Ursula von der Leyen tweeted that "the outrageous and
illegal behavior of the regime in Belarus will have consequences," and that those responsible "must be sanctioned."
Secretary of State Antony Blinken demanded Protasevich’s immediate release, saying "Initial reports suggesting the involvement of the Belarusian security
services and the use of Belarusian military aircraft to escort the plane are deeply concerning and require full investigation."
Belarus opposition leaders in exile who spoke to the Free Beacon have little expectation that reaction from the West will be sufficient to change what has
become increasingly barbaric behavior from Lukashenko’s regime. Other anti-Lukashenko activists expressed similar sentiments, including the Russian
blogger and publicist Ilya Baitsman, who wrote: "The trouble is, he can get away with it. It will all end with ‘deep concern’ of European diplomacy, and then everyone will put on the brakes, as was done with [Malaysian Airlines Flight 17]. If those 298 killed can be choked down … then one victim would not be noticed at all…. Our planet is too small for good-natured Chamberlainism. Last time it ended in WWII, this time it will lead to WWIII."