European leaders and the US have strongly condemned the arrest of a Belarusian dissident journalist after the Ryanair flight he was travelling on was forced to land in the Belarus capital Minsk.
Roman Protasevich, 26, was arrested after his flight from Athens was diverted from its scheduled destination of Vilnius in Lithuania on Sunday.
Belarus state media said the aircraft was switched to Minsk following a bomb threat, and that Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko personally ordered a MiG-29 fighter jet to escort the flight to Minsk.
However, opposition groups have said it was an operation by Belarus special services to “hijack” the flight so they could arrest Mr Protasevich.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken accused President Lukashenko’s government of endangering the lives of those on board the aircraft and demanded a “full investigation”.
“We strongly condemn the Lukashenka regime’s brazen and shocking act to divert a commercial flight and arrest a journalist. We demand an international investigation and are coordinating with our partners on next steps. The United States stands with the people of Belarus,” he tweeted.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said the incident was “serious and dangerous” and “requires international investigation”.
EU leaders will meet later today to discuss possible action following the incident.
Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda said he would propose banning Belarusian planes from European Union airports and “serious sanctions” against Mr Lukashenko’s government for what he described as a “state-sponsored terror act”.
Ursula von der Leyen, head of the EU’s executive European Commission, demanded that Mr Protasevich be released immediately and said that those responsible for “the hijacking must be sanctioned”.
Simon Coveney, foreign minister of Ireland, where Ryanair is based, warned that “EU inaction will be taken as weakness by Belarus”.
UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said: “The UK is alarmed by reports of the arrest of NEXTA journalist Roman Protasevich and 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.”
The US, EU, Britain and Canada have already imposed travel bans and frozen the assets of almost 90 Belarusian officials, including Mr Lukashenko.
That move followed Belarus’s election in August – Mr Lukashenko won but opponents have said there was widespread fraud involved.
Mr Protasevich, who now works for Telegram channel Belamova, is wanted in Belarus on charges including organising mass riots and inciting social hatred.
The charges relate to anti-government protests following the disputed election, charges which he denies.
The Ryanair flight from Athens had been diverted just a few minutes before it was due to cross into Lithuanian airspace, according to flight tracking website FlightRadar24.
Ryanair said the plane’s crew was notified by Belarus of a potential security threat on board and was instructed to divert to the nearest airport, Minsk.
After seven hours in Minsk, the plane took off and later landed in Vilnius safely.