ATHENS — Adding to the audacity of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko forcing a flight from Athens to land in Minsk so he could arrest a blogger critical of his government is that foreign agents in Greece may have helped the operation.
The flight was headed to Lithuania's capital of Vilnius when a Belarusian fighter jet forced the pilot of the Ryanair flight to land so that Raman Pratasevich – who had appeared at the Delphi Forum in Greece – could be detained.
He faces up to 15 years in prison in Belarus for criticizing Lukashenko, called Europe's Last Dictator, who has been able to withstand constant protests against corruption and his authoritarian rule with the European Union doing little about it.
He has the backing of Russian President Vladimir Putin and Kathimerini reported that while at Athens International Airport, Pratasevich is said to have informed colleagues via the Telegram messaging application he was approached by an unknown Russian-speaking man who took his photo.
If the information is confirmed, then there is reason to believe that foreign secret agents were operating at the Greek airport, the paper said, which could also indicate how Belarus knew he was on the flight.
The incident was described by some European Union leaders as a state-sponsored hijacking but there was no indication the bloc would do anything other than tweet denunciation.
According to reports, 170 passengers were aboard, including 11 Greeks. After seven hours on the ground in Minsk, the plane took off without six of the passengers: Pratasevich, his partner and four Russian nationals. It is likely that these four men took part in the operation, the paper said.
Greece’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs released a statement condemning the forced diversion of the aircraft and the arrest of Pratasevich.
“A shocking act… enough is enough,” Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis tweeted, adding that he expected a meeting May of the European Council, the heads of state of the 27 member countries, would have a response.
“I saw this Belarusian guy with girlfriend sitting right behind us. He freaked out when the pilot said the plane is diverted to Minsk. He said there’s death penalty awaiting him there," passenger Marius Rutkauskas said after the plane arrived in Vilnius.
"We sat for an hour after the landing. Then they started releasing passengers and took those two. We did not see them again” Rutkauskas said.
Flight tracker sites indicated the plane was about 10 kilometers (six miles) from the Lithuanian border when it was diverted. There were conflicting accounts of the move.
The press service of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko said the President himself ordered that a MiG-29 fighter jet accompany the airliner after he was informed of the bomb threat. Deputy Air Force Commander Andrei Gurtsevich said the plane's crew made the decision to land in Minsk.
IS IT SAFE?
But Ryanair said in a statement that Belarusian air traffic control instructed the plane to divert to the capital.
Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda called the incident a “state-sponsored terror act.” He said that the European Council would discuss the case and that he would propose banning Belarusian planes from European Union airports and “serious sanctions” against Lukashenko's government.
“Belarusian airspace is completely unsafe for any commercial flight, and it should be deemed this not only by the EU but by the international community. Because now, this instrument could be used for any plane crossing Belarusian airspace,” said Lithuania's Foreign Minister, Gabrielius Landsbergis..
Pratasevich is a co-founder of the Telegram messaging app’s Nexta channel, which Belarus declared extremist after it was used to help organize major protests against Lukashenko. The protests have dwindled in recent months, but Belarus authorities are crushing the opposition and arresting journalists.
The Belarus Presidential press service said the bomb threat was received while the plane was over Belarusian territory. Officials later said no explosives were found on board later.
Passengers were taken off the plane in Minsk. After the plane arrived in Vilnius, Defense Minister Arvydas Anusauskas said Pratasevich's girlfriend and four other people did not reboard.
“We will find out who are the other four that did not travel with the rest. Lithuania has launched an investigation to find out what really happened on that plane,” he said on Facebook.
Exiled opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya called on the International Civil Aviation Organization to begin an investigation.
“It is absolutely obvious that this is an operation by the special services to hijack an aircraft in order to detain activist and blogger Raman Pratasevich,” she said in a statement. “Not a single person who flies over Belarus can be sure of his safety.” The ICAO later said it “is strongly concerned by the apparent forced landing.”
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken called the incident “shocking” and accused Lukashenko’s government of endangering the lives of those aboard the aircraft, some of them Americans . He called for the release of Pratasevich and for the Council of the ICAO to review the incident.
“Independent media are an essential pillar supporting the rule of law and a vital component of a democratic society. The United States once again condemns the Lukashenka regime’s ongoing harassment and arbitrary detention of journalists,” Blinken said although the US would not sanction Saudi Arabia for the state-sponsored slaughter of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell called it “yet another blatant attempt by the Belarusian authorities to silence all opposition voices.” He called the diversion of the plane an “inadmissible step” highlighting a further worsening in relations between both sides, which has been ongoing for years.
(Material from the Associated Press was used in this report)