KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — A prominent opponent of Belarus’ authoritarian president was arrested Sunday after the airliner in which he was traveling was diverted to the country after a bomb threat, in what the opposition is calling a hijacking operation by the government.
The presidential press service said President Alexander Lukashenko personally ordered that a MiG-29 fighter jet accompany the Ryanair plane — carrying opposition figure Raman Pratasevich and traveling from Athens, Greece, to Vilnius, Lithuania — to the airport in the capital Minsk.
Deputy air force commander Andrei Gurtsevich said the plane’s crew made the decision to land in Minsk, but Ryanair said in a statement that Belarusian air traffic control instructed the plane to divert to the capital.
Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda also claimed the plane was forced to land in Minsk and said Lukashenko’s “regime is behind this.”
The Belarusian Interior Ministry said Pratasevich was arrested at the airport. Pratasevich is a co-founder of the Telegram messaging app’s Nexta channel, which Belarus last year declared as extremist after it was used to help organize major protests against Lukashenko.
Pratasevich, who had fled the country for Poland, faces charges that could carry a prison sentence of up to 15 years.
The 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. Flight-tracker sites indicate the plane was about 10 kilometers (six) miles from the Lithuanian border when it changed course.
Exiled opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya called on the International Civil Aviation Organization, or ICAO, 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.”
Belarusian authorities said there were 123 passengers on the plane, which resumed its trip to Vilnius later Sunday. But Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis said there were 171.
Western countries also expressed alarm.
Belarus “showed again its contempt for international community and its citizens,” U.S. Ambassador Julie Fisher said, calling the event “dangerous and abhorrent.”
European Commision President Ursula von der Leyen tweeted that “It is utterly unacceptable to force @Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius to land in Minsk.”
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said “Such an act cannot be left without definite consequences from the side of the European Union” and called for Pratasevich to be released.
Months of protests arose after last August’s presidential election that official results say gave Lukashenko a sixth term in office.
Police cracked down on the protests harshly, detaining around 30,000 people and beating many of them.
Although protests died down during the winter, Belarus has continued to take actions against the opposition and independent news media. Last week, 11 staff members of the TUT.by news website were detained by police.
Associated Press writers Jim Heintz in Moscow, Sylvia Hui in London, and Liudas Dapkus in Vilnius, Lithuania, contributed to this story.