Britain today condemned 'Putin puppet' Alexander Lukashenko's after Belarus hijacked a Ryanair passenger plane full of tourists by allegedly inventing an 'outlandish' bomb scare in order to arrest a dissident journalist who is now facing the death penalty.
Ryanair flight FR4978 had been flying from Athens in Greece to Vilnius in Lithuania when it was escorted by a Soviet-era MiG-29 fighter jet to Belarus amid bogus reports of an IED on board and forced to make an emergency landing in Minsk Airport.
Belarusian authorities then hauled off and arrested Roman Protasevich, a 26-year-old critic of Lukashenko who works as an editor of Polish-based news outlet Nexta which broadcast footage of huge anti-regime protests last year via the Telegram messenger app.
Protasevich is wanted in Belarus on extremism charges and stands accused of organising riots and of inciting social hatred, allegations he denies. If he is convicted, he could face the death penalty.
Critics of Lukashenko claim the incident was a rouse invented by the last strongman of Europe in order to detain Protasevich. They also allege the autocrat would never have attempted the 'outrageous' move without assurances from Vladimir Putin, his closest ally.
Britain tonight led calls for toughening existing sanctions against Belarus, as the United States and European leaders from Germany, the Baltic states and the Czech Republic slammed the 'outlandish' Ryanair hijacking as 'outrageous', 'illegal' and an 'act of state terrorism'.
Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab tweeted: 'The UK is alarmed by reports of the arrest of journalist Roman Protasevich & circumstances that led to his flight being forced to land in Minsk. We are coordinating with our allies. This outlandish action by Lukashenko will have serious implications.'
Brussels said it is set to discuss strengthening sanctions against Belarus, imposed over the crackdown by the Lukashenko regime on opposition protesters, at a pre-planned summit on Monday.
EU chief Ursula von der Leyen tweeted: '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.'
Polish premier Mateusz Morawiecki denounced Belarus's actions as 'an act of state terrorism', while French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian called for a 'strong and united response' from the EU. Lithuania and Latvia have called for international flights not to use Belarusian airspace.
Was Ryanair hijacking a KGB sting? Ally of arrested blogger claims Russian spies 'initiated fight with cabin crew by insisting there was a bomb on board'
A member of the Nexta team, Tadeusz Giczan, said on Twitter that representatives of the Belarusian security agency had been on the flight with Protasevich.
'Then when the plane had entered Belarus airspace, the KGB officers initiated a fight with the Ryanair crew insisting there's an IED onboard,' he said.
A spokeswoman for state company Lithuanian Airports, Lina Beisine, told AFP that Minsk airport had said the flight was redirected 'due to a conflict between a member of the crew and the passengers'.
Ryanair said the flight's crew had been notified by Belarus air traffic control of 'a potential security threat on board' and were instructed to divert to Minsk, the 'nearest' airport.
The EU and the United States have sanctioned Lukashenko and dozens of officials and businessmen tied to his regime with asset freezes and visa bans.
The opposition protests in Belarus, which left at least four people dead, have now subsided, but journalists and activists continue to receive prison sentences in the aftermath.
Greek premier Kyriakos Mitsotakis denounced the Belarusian intervention of the Ryanair flight. He said: 'The forced landing of a commercial plane to detain a journalist is an unprecedented, shocking act.
'We demand all passengers' immediate release. Tomorrow's #EUCO [European Council] must address the need to step up pressure on Belarus. Enough is enough.'
NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg also said he was closely monitoring the situation, tweeting: 'Closely monitoring forcible landing in Belarus of flight to Vilnius and reported detention of opposition figure Roman Protasevich.
'This is a serious & dangerous incident which requires international investigation. Belarus must ensure safe return of crew & all passengers.'
Lithuanian Prime Minister Ingrida Simonyte came to Vilnius Airport for the plane's arrival, as did dozens of Belarusian opposition supporters.
Some were draped in the flags used by the opposition, while others held up signs supporting him, including one that read 'Ryanair, Where is Roman?!'.
'We have to show our solidarity in order to avoid being broken one by one,' said one of the opposition supporters, 36-year-old Aleksandr Glachkov. He called the detention of Protasevich a 'crime'.
An official Belarus Telegram channel claimed they saved Europe from a terrorist incident in bringing down the Ryanair plane bound for the Lithuanian capital Vilnius.
The Belarus defence ministry confirmed the detention of Protasevich, who had been living in exile.
Human rights centre Vesna also said: 'Roman Protasevich was detained. He was on the Ryanair flight Athens-Vilnius.'
Data from the flightradar24.com website showed the plane was diverted just two minutes before it was due to cross into Lithuanian airspace.
After several hours in Minsk, the plane took off again for Vilnius, a top EU official said. Protasevich was not on board the flight this time.
After finally landing in Vilnius several hours after the scheduled time of arrival, some passengers described seeing the blogger looking nervous as the flight was diverted to Belarus.
'He just turned to people and said he was facing the death penalty,' Monika Simkiene, a 40-year-old Lithuanian, told AFP.
Edvinas Dimsa, 37, said: 'He was not screaming, but it was clear that he was very much afraid. It looked like if the window had been open, he would have jumped out of it.'
Opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, widely seen to have won last year's presidential election against Lukashenko before being forced into exile, said: 'It is absolutely obvious that this is an operation by the special services to hijack an aircraft in order to detain the activist and blogger Roman Protasevich.
'The regime endangered the safety of passengers on board and all civil aviation for the sake of reprisals against a man who was the editor of the largest Belarusian independent Telegram channels.
'Only for this he was recognised as a terrorist, and only for this now in Belarus Roman can face the death penalty.
'We have already informed the Ryanair office and the International Civil Aviation Organisation, demanding to start an investigation into the incident and take measures up to the exclusion of Belarus from ICAO,' Tikhanovskaya added.
She warned: 'From now on, not a single person flying over Belarus can be sure of their safety. After all, the regime is abusing the rules of air traffic in order to capture those who disagree.'
Meanwhile the Prime Minister of Estonia Kaja Kallas said: 'Absolutely inexplicable and shocking reports from Belarus about detaining Roman Protasevich and forcing the plane to land.
'All passengers should be immediately released and a thorough international investigation should follow. EU must take a stand together.
MEP Roberta Metsola also called for Europe to act now in response to the forced landing.
She said: 'Now is the time for Europe to act in unison. Extended sanctions, independent international investigations and immediate release of dissidents.
'We must be able to guarantee safety and security of air passenger travel. Leaders meeting at #EUCO tomorrow must act.'
The incident is certain to worsen already dire relations between the West and Belarus, which has been tightly controlled since 1994 by President Alexander Lukashenko.
Opponents accuse him of rigging a presidential election in his own favour last year and of then cracking down violently on the opposition. He denies electoral fraud.
British Conservative MP Damian Collins condemned the 'hijacking' in a statement. He said: 'This is an appalling act of hijacking by a rogue state.
'Belarus must release Roman Protasevich, give him safe passage to Lithuania and compensate the airline and passengers. Without this they should face serious sanctions.'
Ryanair said in a statement that the plane's crew was notified by Belarus of a potential security threat on board and were instructed to divert to the nearest airport, Minsk.
The plane landed safely, passengers were offloaded and security checks were made by local authorities, it said, saying it expected the aircraft to resume its journey later on Sunday.
Protasevich worked for an online opposition news service Nexta, a Telegram channel that broadcast footage of mass protests against Lukashenko last year at a time when it was hard for foreign media to do so.
He is wanted in Belarus on extremism charges and stands accused of organising mass riots and of inciting social hatred, allegations he denies.
Belarusian news agency BelTA reported that Lukashenko had personally ordered the warplane to escort the Ryanair plane to Minsk. No explosives were found, it said.
Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda called for an international response.
'I call on NATO and EU allies to immediately react to the threat posed to international civil aviation by the Belarus regime. The international community must take immediate steps that this does not repeat,' Nauseda said.
Lithuanian presidential adviser Asta Skaisgiryte said the operation to force the plane carrying around 170 people from 12 countries to land seemed to be pre-planned.
Protasevich had said that at Athens airport a bald Russian-speaking middle-aged man had attempted to film the main page of his passport. He then turned and left.
NEXTA was closely involved in reporting a wave of opposition protests that last year threatened to topple Lukashenko, before he was given backing by Vladimir Putin
A message being retweeted in Russia read: 'Detention of Protasevich (NEXTA) is a splendid, beautiful, complicated, (operation) in the best traditions of the Soviet KGB, the work of the Belorussian CHEKA (state security). You are cool!'
NEXTA reported: 'Protasevich was on board a flight heading from Athens to Vilnius. He faces the death penalty in Belarus.
'The Lukashists [derogatory term for supporters of embattled President Lukashenko] seized the plane in order to arrest Protasevich,' the channel said.
The Belarus authorities claimed its bomb-disposal squad was examining the plane.
The official Minsk version said: 'Belarus defended Europe. Information has been received that the plane has been mined.'
The plane had almost left Belarus air space but was forced to land in Minsk.
'The situation was immediately reported to the President. Lukashenko gave an unconditional command to turn the plane around and receive it.
'In this situation, the most important thing is the safety and lives of people.'
The Belarusian department for organised crime control reported that Protasevich had been detained before deleting the statement from its Telegram channel.
Around 35,000 people have been detained in Belarus since August, human rights groups say. Dozens have received jail terms. Authorities say that more than 1,000 criminal cases have been launched.