The diversion of a Ryanair flight by the Belarusian regime to arrest a journalist has drew condemnation by western nations. Many of these nations have called for sanctions. Several European airlines have chosen to avoid Belarus’ airspace.
On 23 May, an armed Belarusian MiG-29 Fulcrum fighter jet intercepted Ryanair’s Boeing 737, registered SP-RSM, operating flight FR4978 from Athens, Greece, to Vilnius, Lithuania. 126 passengers and six crew members were on board the airliner. The interception was launched due to an alleged a bomb threat on the aircraft. The 737 was escorted to carry out an emergency landing at Minsk National Airport (MSQ) in the capital city of Belarus.
At the time of the diversion, the aircraft was 72km away from Vilnius, its destination, and 30km from the Lithuanian border. Despite the alleged urgency of the bomb threat, Belarus authorities preferred to divert to Minsk, 183km away. Other Belarusian airports were also closer, such as Grodno Airport as a point of diversion.
When the plane landed in Minsk, two passengers were detained by the KGB, the Belarusian security services. They were identified as Roman Protasevich and his partner Sofia Sapega, a student. Protasevich is a Belarusian journalist, co-founder, and former editor-in-chief of the Nexta information channel.
Nexta was particularly active during the recent protests in Belarus which started in May 2020, following the sixth reelection of President Alexander Lukashenko. According to the exiled opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, Protasevich may face the death penalty in Belarus, the last European country to apply such sentence.
Other passengers reported being searched and detained for seven hours. The plane departed from Minsk and landed in Vilnius later in the evening of 23 May, where it was met by Lithuanian authorities. Roman Protasevich was not on board.