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Belarus has been accused of 'hijacking' a Ryanair flight that was carrying an exiled opposition activist.
The flight was carrying Roman Protasevich, an activist and journalist who ran a popular messaging app that played a key role in helping organise mass protests against Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, and was forced to make an emergency landing in Minsk after a bomb threat.
The plane was searched, and no bomb was found.
Protasevich was arrested after the flight touched down in in Minsk.
The activist is charged with inciting violence and could now face up to 15 years in prison.
The flight, which set off from Athens in Greece, was eventually allowed to continue on to Vilnius, Lithuania.
According to the PA news agency, a Belarusian MiG-29 fighter jet was ordered to escort the plane.
Ryanair CEO Michael O'Leary said the forced landing amounted to 'state sponsored hijacking... state-sponsored piracy' and also said he believed 'KGB agents' had been on the plane.
He told the Irish radio station Newstalk: "It's very frightening for the crew, for the passengers who were held under armed guard, had their bags searched."
He went on to say: "It appears the intent of the authorities was to remove a journalist and his travelling companion... we believe there were some KGB agents offloaded at the airport as well."
Irish Prime Minister Micheal Martin told broadcaster RTE the diversion 'certainly was a state-sponsored coercive act'.
He said: "It reflects growing authoritarianism across the world.
"These authoritarian figures taking pre-meditated decisions of this kind... We have to respond very strong to it."
The press service of Mr Lukashenko said the president himself ordered that a fighter jet accompany the plane after he was informed of the bomb threat.
Deputy air force commander Andrei Gurtsevich told Belarusian state TV that the plane's crew made the decision to land in Minsk, adding that the fighter jet was sent to 'provide help to the civilian aircraft to ensure a safe landing'.
But Ryanair said in a statement that Belarusian air traffic control instructed the plane to divert to the capital.
UK aircraft have been instructed to avoid Belarusian airspace following the 'hijack'.
Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said further sanctions are being considered against the Lukashenko administration - including the suspension of energy pipelines in Belarus - and Belarus's ambassador in London had been summoned for a dressing down.
He said: "The UK condemns yesterday's actions by the Belarusian authorities, who arrested journalist Roman Protasevich on the basis of a ruse, having forced his flight to land in Minsk."
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said he has instructed the Civil Aviation Authority to request airlines avoid Belarusian airspace "in order to keep passengers safe".
He also suspended the operating permit for Belavia, the country's state-owned airline.
Featured Image Credit: PA
Topics: World News
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