A Ryanair plane flying from Greece to Lithuania was diverted to Belarus for several hours on Sunday, with activists saying it was done to arrest a dissident journalist on board.
In a statement, Ryanair said that the crew had been “notified by Belarus air traffic control of a potential security threat on board and were instructed to divert to the nearest airport, Minsk”.
The flight path, visible on the Flightradar24 website, suggests the plane was actually nearer to Vilnius than Minsk when it turned.
Belarus media said a MiG-29 fighter jet escorted the passenger aircraft to Minsk because of a bomb scare but no explosives were found.
The ex-editor of the Nexta group, Roman Protasevich, was detained before the plane was allowed to resume its flight.
Ryanair said checks in Minsk found no explosives or other security threats.
When the plane finally landed in the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius, its original destination, more than seven hours after its scheduled arrival time, disembarking passengers said they had been given no information about the reason for the diversion to Minsk.
One passenger said Protasevich looked “super scared”.
Another said, “He just turned to people and said he was facing the death penalty.”
Belarus opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who fled the country after being beaten by Alexander Lukashenko in presidential polls last year widely denounced as rigged, was among those demanding Protasevich’s release.
Since August’s election, 66-year-old Lukashenko, who has ruled the country since 1994, has cracked down on dissenting voices. Many opposition figures have been arrested or fled into exile.
Belta, the state-owned news agency in Belarus, said Lukashenko had personally given the order for the plane to land in Minsk following the bomb alert, and approved dispatching the MiG-29 fighter jet.
European nations reacted with outrage, accusing Belarus of “state terrorism”. There have already been calls for the EU and Nato to intervene.
UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab warned the “outlandish action” would have “serious implications”.
The US ambassador to Belarus, Julie Fisher, tweeted that it was “abhorrent” Lukashenko had faked a bomb threat and sent fighter jets to arrest a journalist.
Both Latvia and Lithuania said the airspace over Belarus should be recognised as unsafe, with Latvia’s Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics saying it should be closed to all international flights.