European nations were demanding answers after Belarusian authorities dispatched a fighter jet to force a Ryanair flight to divert to Minsk, where a dissident journalist who was on board was then arrested.
Ryanair said its plane was flying from Greece to Lithuania on Sunday when it was notified of "a potential security threat on board" by air traffic controllers in Belarus and told to divert to Minsk for an emergency landing.
The airline said the plane landed safely in Belarusian capital and "nothing untoward was found" after passengers were offloaded and an inspection took place.
But authorities at the airport used the opportunity to arrest Roman Protasevich, a Belarusian journalist and opposition activist, who was a passenger, according to state media and the rights group Viasna.
The opposition news outlet Nexta also confirmed the arrest of Protasevich, the organization's co-founder and former editor who has been living in exile.
Governments across Europe reacted with outrage, suggesting authoritarian Belarus used the pretext of a safety threat to conduct a "state hijacking" of a civilian airliner in order to go after a critic.
Belarusian state media reported that the plane's diversion came on the personal instructions of long-time President Alexander Lukashenko after he had purportedly been alerted to a possible bomb on board and was concerned about the plane's safety.
He also ordered a MiG-29 fighter jet be scrambled to accompany the Ryanair plane, according to the Belta state news agency.
Lukashenko, 66, has led Belarus - a former Soviet republic in Eastern Europe bordering EU states Poland, Lithuania and Latvia - for more than a quarter of a century, tolerating little dissent.
Mass protests against his rule erupted after a presidential election last year that was widely seen as unfair and rife with electoral fraud.
It is utterly unacceptable to force @Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius to land in Minsk.— Ursula von der Leyen (@vonderleyen) May 23, 2021
ALL passengers must be able to continue their travel to Vilnius immediately and their safety ensured.
Any violation of international air transport rules must bear consequences.
Immediate release demanded
Belarus calls Nexta an extremist organization and Protasevich has been wanted by authorities. Nexta had urged on the protests against Lukashenko.
Lukashenko has long considered Protasevich to be an enemy. The country's KGB secret service had reportedly put his name on a list of people accused of alleged terrorism and he faces years in prison if convicted.
Condemnation of Belarus came swiftly on Sunday, with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg calling for an international investigation and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen saying the "utterly unacceptable" incident "must bear consequences."
The United States demanded Protasevich be immediately released. Secretary of State Antony Blinken strongly condemned the forced diversion and Protasevich's arrest.
"This shocking act perpetrated by the Lukashenka regime endangered the lives of more than 120 passengers, including U.S. citizens," Blinken said in a statement.
The 27 EU leaders will discuss Belarus during a previously scheduled summit in Brussels on Monday, including the possibility of imposing sanctions on Minsk, a spokesperson for EU Council President Charles Michel said.
Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda tweeted that Belarus had committed an "abhorrent action" and demanded the release of Protasevich.
The Lithuanian Prosecutor-General's Office said the country has launched a preliminary investigation into the jet's forced diversion.
We hold the government of Belarus responsable for the security of all passengers and the aircraft.— Josep Borrell Fontelles (@JosepBorrellF) May 23, 2021
ALL passengers must be able to continue their travel immediately. (2/2)
Seven hours on the ground
The Greek Foreign Ministry said it "strongly condemns the state hijacking," while Britain, Germany, France, Poland, Austria, Norway, Sweden, and the Netherlands were among the chorus denouncing Minsk.
Ryanair Flight FR4978 was en route from Athens to the Lithuanian capital Vilnius when it was ordered to land in Minsk.
Former Belarusian culture minister Pavel Latushko, who lives in exile in the EU, said, citing his contacts, that the flight control centre in Minsk threatened the pilots with shooting down the plane if they did not land.
Greece and Lithuania put the number of passengers on board at 171, although Ryanair has not provided a figure. Lithuania said most of the passengers were Lithuanian nationals. Belarus had said the plane had 123 passengers.
The Irish low-cost airline said the plane spent seven hours on the ground in Minsk undergoing security checks before it was allowed to depart at 8:50 pm (local time).
It landed in Vilnius a little over 30 minutes later.
Ryanair made no mention of Protasevich in its statement.
Exiled Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who many in Belarus consider the true winner of the 2020 presidential election, urged the international community to punish Lukashenko.