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World leaders condemn Belarus for 'hijacking' flight to arrest dissident reporter

A Ryanair Boeing 737-800 is seen at Vilnius International Airport in Vilnius, Lithuania, on Sunday. A Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius was diverted to the Belarusian capital of Minsk under the escort of a fighter jet after its crew was notified by authorities of a 'potential security threat on board.' Photo by EPA-EFE
A Ryanair Boeing 737-800 is seen at Vilnius International Airport in Vilnius, Lithuania, on Sunday. A Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius was diverted to the Belarusian capital of Minsk under the escort of a fighter jet after its crew was notified by authorities of a 'potential security threat on board.' Photo by EPA-EFE

May 23 (UPI) -- Belarus' Lukashenko regime forced a flight en route from Greece to Lithuania to land within its borders on Sunday and arrested an opposition journalist on board, inciting worldwide anger and accusations of committing terrorism by "hijacking" a civilian plane.

The press service for Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko confirmed via Telegram that he gave the order for the Ryanair flight, which was en route from Athens to Vilnius, to land at Minsk while being escorted by a MiG-29 fighter jet.

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Belarus public broadcaster reported that the airport said the plane was diverted due to a bomb threat, and officials were conducting verification measures.

Upon landing, exiled journalist Roman Protasevich was detained, local independent news organization Belsat reported.

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"The regime forced the landing Ryanair plane in Minsk to arrest journalist and activist Roman Protasevich," Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the exiled leader of the democratic Belarus movement, said in a statement. "He faces the death penalty in Belarus."

The arrest is the latest by Lukashenko's regime, which has targeted opposition leaders and news media since the presidential election last year when Lukashenko won a sixth term despite widespread international condemnation of the contest being neither fair nor free.

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Protesters who rallied against his electoral victory were met with an increasingly bloody crackdown that forced opposition leaders to flee to exile.

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Tsikhanouskaya, who exiled to Lithuania, said the 26-year-old Protasevich covered the election. Security forces opened criminal cases against him and listed him as a terrorist, for which he could be sentenced to death.

"We demand immediate release of Roman, [International Civil Aviation Organization] investigation and sanctions against Belarus," Tsikhanouskaya said.

In a statement, the International Civil Aviation Organization said the forced landing contravened the Chicago Convention, which maintains order for civil aviation.

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The incident prompted widespread international condemnation, with the European Union stating it will meet Tuesday to discuss action. The bloc has already imposed three rounds of sanctions since the August election, blacklisting 88 people and seven entities.

"The outrageous and illegal behavior of the regime in Belarus will have consequences," European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen tweeted. "Those responsible for the Ryanair hijacking must be sanctioned. Journalist Roman Protasevich must be released immediately."

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki tweeted that he will demand immediate sanctions against Belarus and called the forced landing "an unprecedented act of state terrorism."

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Lithuania President Gitanas Nauseda tweeted a suggestion that airspace over Belarus be declared unsafe and for Belarusian aircraft to be denied landing at all EU airports.

In the United States, which has repeatedly blacklisted Belarusian officials and entities since the August election, Secretary of State Antony Blinken condemned the "shocking act" of diverting the plane and putting at risk 120 passengers.

He demanded that Protasevich be immediately released.

"[The U.S.] condemns the Lukashenko regime's ongoing harassment and arbitrary detention of journalists," he said in a statement.

"We stand with the Belarusian people in their aspirations for a free, democratic and prosperous future and support their call for the regime to respect human rights and fundamental freedoms."

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