ATHENS — A Greek national was reportedly among the five passengers on board a Ryanair flight from Athens to Lithuania's capital Vilnius who got off when it was forced by Belarus to land at Minsk to arrest an opposition journalist.
That was reported by the financial news agency Bloomberg after Ryanan CEO Michael O'Leary said four Belarusian KGB agents who took off with the flight in Greece got off in Belarus where blogger Roman Protasevich and his girlfriend were arrested.
When the flight was forced to divert by a Belarusian F-16 fighter jet reportedly sent up on orders of President Alexander Lukashenko, who has ruled as a dictator since 1994 and survived months of protests against his rigged re-election.
Protasevich is co-founder of the app Nexta that is used with the encrypted messaging program Telegram that Belarusian dissidents and protesters have used to avoid Lukashenko's army of spies and as a crackdown on journalists continues.
The European Union had imposed sanctions that Lukashenko ignored and after a fury over the forced landing the bloc's leaders said they would impose more and not allow air travel over Belarus and bar flights from that country into Western Europe.
Pratasevich was asked just one question when a Belarusian official singled him out from a crowd of passengers huddled on a bus after the forced landing, said Bloomberg.
“One officer asked, pointing a finger at him: do you speak Russian?” said passenger Saulius Danauskas. “They made a big show. But it was clear that this operation was after this one man.”
Danauskas was returning from a holiday in Greece with his wife and his daughter’s family and said the passengers were subjected to a security check that included sniffer dogs checking everyone, including babies, part of a bomb threat ruse used to make the plane land in Belarus.
Most people on the plane were Lithuanians like him who also speak Russian given their past under Soviet rule but said the whole episode was done just to get at Pratesevich as Lukashenko does not allow any criticism.
Pratesevich had been in Vilnius since November, when he was listed as a wanted terrorist in Belarus, and Lithuania allowed him to stay in the country. He was in Greece to appear at the noted Delphi Forum.
Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis demanded swift and severe sanctions but it was unclear just how far the EU was willing to go given that Lukashenko has the support of Russia, which provides the bloc with most of its oil and gas.
Mitsotakis said tough sanctions would “convey the message that such practices cannot and must not become tolerated on the European continent,” he added, but there was no sign that was going to happen.
Russia is also going to use the NordStream pipeline to bring energy into Germany, giving Russian President Vladimir Putin leverage, with the EU for years worried that Belarus – which gets billions of euros in aid.
There's been no report where the money goes – the EU fearing being too tough would push Lukashenko further into the Russian sphere – although Russian is a preferred language in Belarus and there's a strong Soviet-era influence.