Roman Protasevich Photograph:( Twitter )
The move comes amid an intensifying crackdown following historic demonstrations that gripped the ex-Soviet country after a disputed presidential election last year
Belarusian opposition Telegram channel Nexta said Sunday its former editor and exiled opposition activist Roman Protasevich had been detained in Minsk after his flight made an emergency landing under orders from President Alexander Lukashenko.
The move comes amid an intensifying crackdown following historic demonstrations that gripped the ex-Soviet country after a disputed presidential election last year.
Nexta Live and its sister channel Nexta, with close to 2 million subscribers on the Telegram messenger, are prominent voices of the Belarus opposition and helped mobilise protesters.
Belarusians took to the streets demanding the resignation of Lukashenko, who has ruled with an iron fist for over two decades and in August secured a landslide victory in an election his opponents say was rigged.
Protasevich was on Sunday aboard a Ryanair flight from Athens to the Lithuanian capital Vilnius, which made an emergency landing following a bomb scare, TASS news agency reported citing the press service of Minsk airport.
"The plane was checked, no bomb was found and all passengers were sent for another security search," Nexta said. "Among them was... Nexta journalist Roman Protasevich. He was detained."
It added that Protasevich said he was followed before boarding the flight.
The Belarusian Interior Ministry initially confirmed the detention on Telegram, but the post was later deleted.
Last year, 26-year old Protasevich and Nexta founder Stepan Putilo, 22, were added to Belarus's list of "individuals involved in terrorist activity".
The two bloggers, who live in Poland, were added to the list based on earlier charges of causing mass unrest, an offence that can lead to up to 15 years of imprisonment.
Belarus had also labelled the Nexta Telegram channels and its logo "extremist" and ordered it blocked.
The Telegram channel of Lukashenko's press service said the president gave the order to turn the flight around. It added that he also ordered a Mig-29 fighter jet to accompany the aircraft.
Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda on Twitter called the incident an "unprecedented event" and said that the Belarus "regime is behind the abhorrent action".
Unprecedented event! A civilian passenger plane flying to Vilnius was forcibly landed in #Minsk. Belarusian political activist & founder of @NEXTA_EN was on the plane. He is arrested. 🇧🇾 regime is behind the abhorrent action. I demand to free Roman Protasevič urgently!— Gitanas Nausėda (@GitanasNauseda) May 23, 2021
"It is absolutely obvious that this is an operation of secret services to capture the plane in order to detain activist and blogger Roman Protasevich," exiled opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya said on Telegram.
The opposition believes that Tikhanovskaya, who fled to neighbouring Lithuania after the election, was the true winner of last year's presidential vote.
Both Tikhanovskaya and Nexta say that Protasevich could face the death penalty in Belarus.
A member of the Nexta team, Tadeusz Giczan, said on Twitter that representatives of the Belarusian security agency were on the flight with Protasevich.
"Then when the plane had entered Belarus airspace, the KGB officers initiated a fight with the Ryanair crew insisting there's an IED onboard," he said.
What we know so far: KGB operatives boarded the plane in Athens this morning together with Roman Protasevich (he noticed dodgy-looking ppl taking pics of him at the gate). Then when the plane has entered Belarus airspace KGB officers initiated a fight with the Ryanair crew (1/2)— Tadeusz Giczan (@TadeuszGiczan) May 23, 2021
A spokeswoman for state company "Lithuanian airports", Lina Beisine, told AFP that Minsk airport said the flight was redirected "due to a conflict between a member of the crew and the passengers".
There was no immediate reaction from Ryanair.
The European Union and the United States have sanctioned Lukashenko and dozens of officials and businessmen tied to his regime with asset freezes and visa bans.
The historic Belarus protests, which left at least four people dead, have now subsided, but journalists and activists continue to receive prison sentences in the aftermath.