Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko ordered a Ryanair flight from Greece to Lithuania to land on Sunday in Minsk, where a Belarusian opposition activist on board was detained, prompting international condemnation.
EU member Lithuania urged the European Union and NATO to respond, Germany called for an immediate explanation and Poland's prime minister called it a "reprehensible act of state terrorism".
The EU said on Sunday that all passengers on board the Ryanair plane which was forced to land by Belarus must be allowed to resume their journeys immediately.
"ALL passengers must be able to continue their travel to Vilnius immediately and their safety ensured," European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said on Twitter. "Any violation of international air transport rules must bear consequences," she added.
The @Ryanair flight took off just now from Minsk bound for Vilnius. Great news for everyone especially the families and friends of people onboard.Advertisement
— Adina Valean (@AdinaValean) May 23, 2021
EU transport Commissioner Adina Valean has since confirmed that the flight has taken off again and is on its way to Vilnius.
"The Ryanair flight took off just now from Minsk bound for Vilnius," she said on Twitter, adding: "Great news for everyone especially the families and friends of people onboard."
The aircraft, flying from Athens to Vilnius, had almost reached Lithuania when it changed direction and was escorted to Minsk, the Belarusian capital, after reports that it had explosives on board, according to an online flight tracker and BelTA state news agency.
Belarusian law enforcers took activist Roman Protasevich, 26 from the plane and detained him. He was placed on a wanted list after street protests last year following a presidential election in which Lukashenko was declared the winner but opponents complained of electoral fraud.
Lukashenko personally ordered a warplane to escort the Boeing to Minsk, BelTA reported. No explosives were found, it said.
Lithuania and traditional Russian ally Belarus are neighbours and former members of the Soviet Union. Lithuania is now a member of the European Union, Belarus is not.
Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda called for an international response.
"I call on NATO and EU allies to immediately react to the threat posed to international civil aviation by the Belarus regime. The international community must take immediate steps that this does not repeat," Mr Nauseda said.
Lithuanian presidential adviser Asta Skaisgiryte said the operation to force-land the plane carrying around 170 people from 12 countries seemed to be pre-planned.
She said Belarus intelligence services knew who was onboard the plane, which was forced to land with the help of MIG-29 fighter jet. Mr Protasevich had lived in Vilnius since November, she said.
A Lithuanian airport authority spokeswoman told Reuters the plane, scheduled to land in Vilnius earlier on Sunday, was now expected to land later in the day.
Ryanair said nothing untoward had been found after it was notified of a potential security threat on board one of its planes by Belarus air traffic control on Sunday and instructed to divert to the nearest airport in Minsk.
Security checks were completed by local authorities on the passengers, the Irish airline said in a statement.
The flight was due to depart with passengers and crew at 1600 GMT, it added, apologising for the delay "which was outside Ryanair's control".
Germany on Sunday demanded that Belarus immediately explain why it ordered the Lithuania-bound Ryanair flight to land in the Belarusian capital.
"We need an immediate explanation by the Government of #Belarus on the diversion of a Ryanair flight within the EU to Minsk and the alleged detention of a journalist," Foreign Ministry State Secretary Miguel Berger tweeted.
"If this proves to be true, it's a case of state terrorism. There would need to be definite consequences by the EU," tweeted Norbert Roettgen, chairman of the German lower house of parliament's foreign affairs committee.
Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said that the forced landing of the plane by Belarus to detain the journalist was an "unprecedented and shocking".
"We demand all passengers' immediate release. Tomorrow's #EUCO must address the need to step up pressure on Belarus. Enough is enough," Mr Mitsoatakis said in a tweet.
This outlandish action by Lukashenko will have serious implications
Britain's foreign minister said there will be serious implications for the "outlandish action" Lukashenko took in ordering the landing of the plane.
"The UK is alarmed by reports of the arrest of @nexta_tv journalist Roman Protasevich & circumstances that led to his flight being forced to land in Minsk," Dominic Raab tweeted.
"We are coordinating with our allies. This outlandish action by Lukashenko will have serious implications."
In power since 1994, Lukashenko launched a violent crackdown on the 2020 street protests. Around 35,000 people have been detained since August, human rights groups say. Dozens have received jail terms. Authorities say that more than 1,000 criminal cases have been launched.
Mr Protasevich is one of the founders of the opposition news service NEXT, a Telegram channel that has become one of the main sources of news about demonstrations in Belarus. It is hostile to Lukashenko and helps to coordinate protests.
Belarusian opposition politician Svetlana Tsikhanouskaya, Lukashenko's main rival at the last election, said Belarus authorities "placed at risk safety of passengers on board and all of the civil aviation for the sake of punishment of the man who was an editor of Belarus's largest independent Telegram channel".
She called on the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) to investigate Belarus after it diverted the plane.
"From now on, any citizen of any country who flies over Belarus is not guaranteed even basic security," she told reporters on Sunday in Vilnius, where she is based, calling for Belarus's removal from the ICAO.
The life Mr Protasevich, currently detained in Minsk, was now in danger, Ms Tsikhanouskaya said.