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Ryanair Flight Carrying An Opposition Journalist Is Forced To Land In Belarus

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

There is international outrage over events that transpired in Belarus over the weekend. The government of Alexander Lukashenko ordered an international commercial flight to divert to the Belarusian capital, Minsk, and send a jet fighter to make sure that happened. It was all an elaborate effort to arrest an opposition activist who was on that plane. NPR's Lucian Kim joins us now from Moscow. Lucian, this was a Ryanair aircraft. It was flying from Greece to Lithuania when this incident occurred. What other details can you share about what happened?

LUCIAN KIM, BYLINE: Well, Roman Protasevich is the former editor of the Belarusian opposition blog Nexta, and he was flying with his girlfriend, who's a Russian citizen, from Athens to Vilnius, which is the capital of Lithuania, on that Ryanair flight. Now, Ryanair says that Belarusian air traffic control told them there was a security threat on board, and they were ordered to land at the airport in Minsk. What's interesting is that, according to online flight trackers, the plane appears to have been almost out of Belarusian airspace. But the pilot really had no choice since the Belarusian Air Force scrambled a jet fighter to escort the plane to Minsk Airport. When they landed, the plane was searched. No bomb was found, but Protasevich was detained. And there are reports his girlfriend, Sofia Sopega, was detained with him.

MARTIN: Huh. So say more about Roman Protasevich. I mean, he's not the only political opposition activist in Belarus. Why is the government there so fixated on him?

KIM: Well, Roman Protasevich is 26 years old. And for comparison's sake, Belarus's leader, Alexander Lukashenko, has been in power for 27 years. Protasevich was one of the brains behind the Belarusian opposition channel Nexta on the Telegram messaging app. Nexta played a huge role in last year's protests against Lukashenko's rule. Nexta spread news among activists. They documented police abuses and helped protesters organize. So the Belarusian regime has leveled a number of charges against Protasevich and considers him a terrorist. According to news reports, citing passengers who were on the plane with him, Protasevich said that he expects to be executed.

MARTIN: So, I mean, what's the government in Belarus saying about these extraordinary measures to get this person in custody?

KIM: Well, the Belarusian regime is acting like it did nothing wrong. It says it was only helping a plane in distress that possibly had a bomb on board. That's the official version. But, of course, nobody is buying it, especially since the Belarusian regime is going after all of its critics. European Union Chief Ursula von der Leyen called the diversion outrageous and illegal and said there would be consequences. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has also issued a condemnation and said the U.S. would be coordinating with its allies on what to do next. The EU is discussing new sanctions against Belarus today, but it's not really clear what can be done since the Belarusian regime is already sanctioned and very isolated and being pushed closer and closer to its only ally, Russia.

MARTIN: And we should say even though that's the government in Belarus's story that there was a bomb on the plane, there was no such bomb. NPR's Lucian Lim reporting on all of this from Moscow. Lucian, thank you so much. We appreciate it.

KIM: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.