Explained: Why was a Ryanair flight grounded in Belarus?

explained
Explained: Why Was A Ryanair Flight Grounded In Belarus?
In what was described by some EU leaders as a hijacking, the passenger plane flying from Athens to Lithuania was suddenly diverted to Minsk, the capital of Belarus, escorted there by a Soviet-era MiG-29 fighter jet.(Photo by PETRAS MALUKAS / AFP) (Photo by PETRAS MALUKAS/AFP via Getty Images)
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Thomson Reuters and Associated Press

With the news that Belarusian authorities used a fighter jet to get a Ryanair plane to land on Sunday and detain an opposition journalist Roman Protasevich, leaders from both Europe and the United States have condemned the actions.

In what was described by some EU leaders as a hijacking, the passenger plane flying from Athens to Lithuania was suddenly diverted to Minsk, the capital of Belarus, escorted there by a Soviet-era MiG-29 fighter jet.

What does this all stem from?

Back in September 2020, President Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus was sworn in for his sixth term in office.

It came amid weeks of huge protests over his re-election, which the opposition claims was rigged. Mr Lukashenko has run Belarus, a former Soviet nation of 9.5 million, for 26 years.

Several European countries used the occasion to reiterate they do not recognise the results of the election and refuse to regard Mr Lukashenko as the legitimate president.

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The ceremony was held in front of several hundred dignitaries at the Palace of Independence in the capital of Minsk on Wednesday.

The United States and the European Union questioned the election and criticised the brutal police crackdown on peaceful protesters during the first few days of demonstrations.

What happened to the opposition?

Official results of the country’s presidential election back on August 9th, 2020 had Lukashenko winning 80 per cent of the vote.

His strongest opponent, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, got 10 per cent. Ms Tsikhanouskaya, is in exile in neighbouring Lithuania after being forced to leave Belarus.

She says the outcome was invalid, as have the tens of thousands of her supporters who continue to demand Mr Lukashenko’s resignation during more than six weeks of mass protests.

“The people haven’t handed him a new mandate,” she said, adding the inauguration was “a farce” and an attempt by Mr Lukashenko to “declare himself legitimate”.

Protests have rocked the country daily since the election, with the largest rallies in Minsk attracting up to 200,000 people.

In the first three days of protests, police used tear gas, truncheons and rubber bullets to disperse crowds. Several protesters died, many were injured and more than 7,000 were detained.

Protasevich who now works for a different Telegram channel called Belamova, is wanted in Belarus on extremism charges and stands accused of organising mass riots and of inciting social hatred, allegations he denies. (Photo by Artur Widak/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Who is Roman Protasevich?

The 26-year-old journalist worked for Poland-based online news service NEXTA, which broadcast footage of mass protests against Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko last year via the Telegram messenger app at a time when it was hard for foreign media to do so.

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The channel's footage, which showed how harshly police cracked down on demonstrators, was used widely by international media at a time when the Belarusian authorities were reluctant to allow foreign media in.

Protasevich who now works for a different Telegram channel called Belamova, is wanted in Belarus on extremism charges and stands accused of organising mass riots and of inciting social hatred, allegations he denies.

He said he had his head in his hands and was shaking when he realised the flight was headed for Minsk, Lithuania's Delfi news outlet said, quoting a passenger. Later, as he was led away, according to the report, he remarked: “I'll get the death penalty here."

What happened to the Ryanair flight?

On Sunday, May 23th, Ryanair said Belarusian flight controllers told the crew there was a bomb threat against the plane as it was crossing through the country’s airspace and ordered it to land in the capital Minsk.

A Belarusian MiG-29 fighter jet was scrambled to escort the plane – in a brazen show of force by President Alexander Lukashenko, who has ruled for more than a quarter of a century.

The goal was to arrest of Roman Protasevich, an activist and journalist.He and his Russian girlfriend were led off the plane shortly after landing.

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The plane, which began its journey in Athens, Greece, was eventually allowed to continue on to Vilnius, Lithuania.

One of the passengers, speaking after arriving at Vilnius airport, said neither the pilot nor the crew gave a full explanation for the sudden diversion to Minsk, but Protasevich reacted quickly to the news, standing up from his seat.

What has been the reaction to Belarusian officials with sniffer dogs searched the luggage of each passenger, including Protasevich, but appeared to find nothing. “It looked fake,” Mantas said of the bomb-detection operation.

The plane, which began its journey in Athens, Greece, was eventually allowed to continue on to Vilnius, Lithuania.  (Photo by PETRAS MALUKAS/AFP via Getty Images)

What has the response been?

There has been widespread condemnation from across the politic spectrum with both the Taoiseach and Forgien Affairs Minster, Simon Coveney criticising the incident.

Micheál Martin said it the forced landing of a Ryanair flight in Belarus was a “state-sponsored coercive act”. He added that it was “piracy in the skies” and reflects a growing authoritarianism across the world.

Meanwhile, Simon Coveney described the forced landing in Belarus of a Ryanair flight on Sunday as “state-sponsored aviation piracy”.

Speaking to RTÉ Radio's Morning Ireland, Mr Coveney said the European Union must give “a very clear response” to the incident.

Elsewhere, Ursula von der Leyen, head of the European Commission, said Protasevich must be released immediately and that those responsible for “the Ryanair hijacking must be sanctioned,” adding EU leaders meeting in Brussels on Monday would discuss what action to take.

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NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said in a tweet that the incident was serious and dangerous and required an international investigation.

Lithuania's foreign minister, Gabrielius Landsbergis, said he discussed the Ryanair plane diversion with US Assistant Secretary of State Philip Reeker, urging a strong response from the West.

The United States along with the EU, Britain and Canada have already imposed asset freezes and travel bans on almost 90 Belarusian officials, including Lukashenko, following an August election that opponents and the West say was a sham.

US Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez issued a statement with the heads of seven European parliamentary foreign affairs panels denouncing the forced landing as "an act of piracy."

They called for a ban on all overflights of Belarus, including to and from the country, and for NATO and EU states to impose sanctions and suspend Belarus' "ability to use Interpol."

What happens next?

Several airlines said on Monday they would avoid Belarusian airspace after Belarus scrambled a warplane to intercept a Ryanair aircraft and arrest a dissident journalist in an act denounced by Western powers as "state piracy".

The European Union is considering responding to Sunday's incident by limiting international air traffic over Belarus and restricting its ground transport, and could tighten sanctions already in place on the former Soviet republic.

European Council President Charles Michel said he put another round of sanctions against Belarus on the agenda of an EU summit he will chair on Monday evening after Minsk forced a Ryanair flight to land, an incident he described as “an international scandal”.

Regarding Roman Protasevich, his whereabouts remain unknown.  As Belarus opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya said: “We still don't know where he (Protasevich) is, and in what state. There is a high probability that he is undergoing torture by the special services at this very minute.”

Protasevich's female companion, Sofia Sapega, who was also detained in Minsk on Sunday, is now in the Okrestina prison in the Belarusian capital, Tsikhanouskaya said, citing reports from her relatives.

Sapega is a Russian citizen but the Russian consul in Minsk refused to help her, Tsikhanouskaya said.

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