BELARUS have been accused of executing a "warlike act" after allegedly hijacking a Ryanair flight with a fake bomb alert to arrest an exiled political editor.
Western officials have condemned the country for enacting "state terrorism" after a MiG-29 fighter intercepted the holiday jet and forced it to land in the capital Minsk.
The head of the British Foreign Affairs Committee Tom Tugendhat said: "If it's not an act of war, it's certainly a warlike act."
Quaking journalist Roman Protasevich, 26, a prominent critic of the regime told fellow passengers he was "facing the death penalty" as he was led away by security forces.
"This was effectively aviation piracy, state sponsored," Ireland's Foreign Minister Simon Coveney added.
No explosives were found on board and the plane was cleared to continue its journey from Athens to Lithuanian capital Vilnius.
Swedish Foreign Minister Ann Linde said: "It is dangerous, reckless and naturally, the EU is going to act."
Western leaders reacted with outrage and demanded the dissident be set free.
Foreign secretary Dominic Raab warned President Alexander Lukashenko must be held to account for: "This outlandish action that will have serious implications."
European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen said the forced landing was “completely unacceptable".
"Any violation of international air transport rules must bear consequences,” she wrote on Twitter.
But Russia slammed the countries united in cause as hypocrites, citing the 2013 flight from Moscow that was carrying Bolivian President Evo Morales and was diverted to Austria after reports fugitive U.S. intelligence leaker Edward Snowden might be on board.
Poland's Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said on Twitter: “Hijacking of a civilian plane is an unprecedented act of state terrorism. It cannot go unpunished.”
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.
A MIG-29 jet escorted the Ryanair Boeing-737-8AS flight to Minsk.
The fighter was armed with four R-73L and two R-27R air-to-air missiles, say reports.
There were 123 passengers on board the passenger aircraft forced down in Minsk.
It was air traffic control in Minsk that informed the pilot about the alleged bomb threat, it was reported.
Belarus Investigative Committee said it had opened a criminal case into a false report about a bomb on board the Ryanair plane.
"The death penalty awaits me here,” Protasevich told other passengers when he realised that the plane had landed in Minsk, reported Delfi.
One account said he was distraught.
“Only when the guy found out that we were going to land did he get upset,” said the passenger.
“We were all taken out in fours, and dogs sniffed all our things.
Protasevich “was taken to one side, his belongings were dumped onto the tarmac.
“We asked him what was going on.
“He said who he was and added: "This is where the death penalty awaits me.”
"He was already calmer, but shivering.
“An officer was standing next to him all the time, and soon the military simply took him away.”
The aircraft was due to leave for Vilnius but without the detained political foe.
The head of Russian state channel RT, Margarita Simonyan, said: “I never thought I would be jealous of Belarus in any way.
“But right now I envy it.
Aviation sources in Vilnius said the plane made an emergency landing due to a conflict on the plane.
"There was a conflict between a passenger and a crew member. It was decided to land the plane in Minsk,” said airport spokeswoman Lina Beisiene.
Ryanair said checks in Minsk found "nothing untoward" and the aircraft was cleared to depart after about five hours on the ground.
"Ryanair has notified the relevant national and European safety and security agencies and we apologise sincerely to all affected passengers for this regrettable delay which was outside Ryanair's control," it added.
The Lithuanian civil aviation authorities had “no information” about any bombs planted onboard the plane, she said.
Belarus' state owned news agency said it was President Alexander Lukashenko’s personal order to force down the plane in Minsk.
The Belarus defence ministry confirmed the detention of Protasevich, who had been living in exile.
The plane has since taken off without the dissident, just after 6pm.
Several other European countries have reacted angrily to the news.
Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda accused Belarus of an "abhorrent action".
Latvia's Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics said Belarus's action was "contrary to international law" and the reaction should be "strong and effective".
The EU's foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said Belarus would be held responsible for the safety of all passengers on the aircraft.
Human rights centre Vesna also said: "Roman Protasevich was detained. He was on the Ryanair flight Athens-Vilnius.”
Opposition politicians say that the plane was forced to land in Minsk after a "bogus threat" that an explosive was on board.
Leader of the opposition, 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."
Belarus is the last country in Europe to use the death penalty.
Tikhanovskaya 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. "
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, but it was later reported no explosives were found.
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.”
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