US condemns ‘shocking’ flight diversion and demands journalist’s release

By Anton Troianovski and Marc Santora

International outrage mounted Monday as new details emerged about a brazen operation by Belarus’ strongman leader to divert a Ryanair passenger jet and arrest a dissident journalist traveling on board.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken condemned the forced diversion of a civilian airliner and the arrest of the journalist, saying it was a “shocking act” that “endangered the lives of more than 120 passengers, including U.S. citizens.”

He demanded the “immediate release” of the journalist.

“Initial reports suggesting the involvement of the Belarusian security services and the use of Belarusian military aircraft to escort the plane are deeply concerning and require full investigation,” Blinken said.

Michael O’Leary, CEO of Ryanair, an Irish-based low-cost carrier, called the operation, which was directed by President Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus, a “state-sponsored hijacking.”

Leaders from the European Union were expected to meet Monday night to discuss possible penalties.

Sofia Sapega, the girlfriend of the arrested journalist, Roman Protasevich, was also detained when the plane landed in Minsk, Belarus, on Sunday after a bogus bomb threat during its flight from Athens to Vilnius, Lithuania, her university in the Lithuanian capital said.

Sapega, a Russian citizen, was detained at the Minsk airport along with Protasevich under “groundless and made-up conditions,” the European Humanities University in Vilnius said in a statement demanding her release.

There was no word Monday morning from Belarusian authorities on their whereabouts.

Five people who boarded in Athens were not on the plane when it finally arrived in Vilnius, the Lithuanian police said Monday.

O’Leary said some of the passengers may have been agents of the Belarusian intelligence service, which is still known by its Soviet-era initials.

“We believe there were some KGB agents offloaded at the airport as well,” O’Leary told Irish radio Monday.

O’Leary said that Ryanair was in the process of debriefing its crew and that the European Union and NATO were “dealing with” the situation.

The Lithuanian government called for Belarusian airspace to be closed to international flights in response to what it called a hijacking “by military force.”

The Lithuanian police said they had opened a criminal investigation, on suspicion of hijacking and kidnapping. Of 126 passengers who took off from Athens, 121 arrived in Vilnius, the police said. (Officials had earlier said that there were about 170 passengers on the plane, and that six had stayed behind in Minsk.)

Lithuanian police spoke to the pilots after they landed in Vilnius on Sunday evening, Renatas Pozela, the Lithuanian police commissioner general, said in a telephone interview.

Police investigators would be interviewing the passengers this week, he said.

“The pilots were the priority,” Pozela said. “We wanted to hear their stories. How did they see the situation? What did they do? Were there other planes?”

Pozela said he was not yet authorized to disclose any findings of the investigation.

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