Belarus has been accused of "hijacking" a civilian airliner by forcing a Ryanair passenger flight to land in the country using a fake bomb threat so that authorities could arrest a prominent critic of its authoritarian leader Alexander Lukashenko.
The Ryanair flight was passing through Belarus' airspace while traveling from Athens to Lithuania's capital, Vilnius, when it was diverted to Minsk for an emergency landing because of the phony bomb threat. A Belarusian MiG-29 fighter jet was sent to intercept the plane and escorted it to the airport. On the ground, security agents arrested Roman Protasevich, founder of the social media news channel NEXTA, which played a crucial role in the protests last summer.
The extraordinary move triggered a furious reaction from European countries, which have accused Lukashenko of forcing down a European airliner as part of a pre-planned operation to seize Protasevich.
Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, called it "utterly unacceptable" and warned that those responsible must be sanctioned.
"The outrageous and illegal behaviour of the regime in Belarus will have consequences. Those responsible for the #Ryanair hijacking must be sanctioned. Journalist Roman Protasevich must be released immediately," von der Leyen wrote on Twitter, saying a meeting of EU foreign ministers on Monday would discuss what actions to take.
Other countries, including France and Britain, lined up to condemn Belarus' actions, and there were mounting calls for punitive steps to be taken against Lukashenko.
Poland's prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki said the Ryanair flight had been "hijacked" and condemned it as a "reprehensible act of state terrorism". Micheál Martin, prime minister of Ireland called it "unprecedented" and said it must be addressed by the EU foreign ministers meeting.
Julie Fisher, the U.S. ambassador to Belarus who is based in Vilnius, said the diversion of the flight was "dangerous and abhorrent," saying it showed Lukashenko's contempt for the international community.
After several hours in Minsk, the Ryanair flight took off and landed in Vilnius on Sunday evening. Lithuania's prime minister was at the airport to meet the arriving passengers, who described to local media how they disembarked from the plane and were searched by Belarusian security officials. Videos posted by passengers showed Belarusian soldiers with sniffer dogs examining their luggage on the ground.
Raselle Grigoryeva, a 37 year-old Lithuanian on the plane told ABC News that the crew had not explained why the plane was being diverted to Minsk. She said the passengers were caught by surprise when the plane suddenly plunged sharply.
"We all on the plane had panicked because we thought we were going to crash," she said. "This was a sudden dive, changing the altitude very drastically. It was very violent. I've never felt this on an airplane. Everybody was in shock," she said.
Another passenger told told the Lithuanian news site Delfi that after the sudden maneuver, they saw Protasevich become panicked as he realized where the plane was headed.
"We asked him what was going on. He said what it was and added, 'The death penalty awaits me here.'," the unnamed passenger told Delfi. They said Belarusian security officers pulled Protasevich aside after the passengers were disembarked. "He was already calmer, but trembling. An officer was standing next to him all the time, and soon the officers just came and took him away," the passenger said, according to Delfi.
Grigoryeva said the other passengers then endured a draining ordeal as Belarusian security officials went through with the elaborate charade of the alleged bomb threat. The passengers had their belongings and bodies searched, she said, and were placed in a small room with guards. They were told nothing, she said, and learnt about their situation by anxiously reading the news on their phones.
"We didn't know if we were going to fly home then. They were keeping us as prisoners," she said. "All this cover up was exhausting it was very time-consuming. I can call it only a circus."
She said she felt very sorry for Protasevich and that some passengers had discussed refusing to re-board the plane until he was released, but they feared they too might be arrested.
Ryanair, in a short statement, said the plane was told to divert to Minsk by Belarusian air traffic control because of a "potential security threat on-board." That contradicted claims by Belarusian officials that they had been responding to a request for help from the aircraft.
The airline said the plane landed safely in Minsk and passengers disembarked while security checks were carried out and that "nothing untoward" was found. It said passengers were allowed to board the plane again after around five hours and that the plane was expected to take off around 7 p.m. local time.
"Ryanair has notified the relevant national and European safety and security agencies and we apologize sincerely to all affected passengers for this regrettable delay, which was outside Ryanair's control," the airline said. It made no mention of Protasevich in the statement.
Tadeusz Giczan, editor-in-chief of NEXTA, alleged that agents from Belarus' KGB security service had been onboard the flight and posted messages from Protasevich before he boarded in Athens where he wrote a man he believed to be an undercover KGB agent had approached him at the gate. Grigoryeva, the passenger, said that when they re-boarded the flight in Minsk at least two other passengers were missing, speculating they might have been agents.
NEXTA, the channel founded by Protasevich, was central to the protests that broke out against Lukashenko last summer, and its founders would be among the regime's most-wanted opponents. The outlet helped coordinate the largely leaderless demonstrations and published videos of them and police violence that helped catalyze the protests, which saw hundreds of thousands peacefully take to the streets calling for Lukashenko to step down. It and its sister channel NEXTA Live have close to 2 million subscribers.
Belarus' authorities placed Protasevich on a terrorism watchlist last year and have opened criminal cases against him on charges of organizing mass riots and inciting hatred, offenses that carry sentences of up to 12 to 15 years in prison. Belarus' opposition have said they fear he could now face the death penalty. NEXTA is based in Warsaw, Poland, where its offices are kept under police protection.
His seizure is part of a broader effort by Lukashenko's regime to crush remaining opposition in the country after smothering the protests.
Protasevich had been in Athens, Greece, reporting on a trip by the exiled leader of Belarus' democracy opposition, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who is now based in Lithuania.
Tikhanovskaya condemned Protasevich's arrest, calling for an investigation into the incident and more sanctions on Lukashenko's government.
"Lukashenka's [sic] regime endangered the lives of passengers onboard the plane. From now -- no one flying over Belarus -- can be secure. International reaction needed!" she wrote on Twitter.