On Diverted Jet, a Sense of 'Panic' Among Passengers

Belarus' decision to force down a passenger plane is widely condemned
By John Johnson,  Newser Staff
Posted May 24, 2021 1:52 PM CDT
Belarus 'Hijacking' Poses a Big Test for Biden
This 2019 handout photo released by European Radio for Belarus shows journalist Raman Pratasevich.   (Euroradio via AP)

Ryanair calls it "state-sponsored piracy," per CNBC. The US secretary of state calls it "shocking," and the president of the EU Commission says it amounts to a "hijacking," reports the AP. Those were some of the reactions percolating Monday to the diversion of a passenger jet to Belarus on the order of the latter country's authoritarian ruler. Once the plane was on the ground, Belarus authorities arrested an opposition journalist. Coverage:

  • The diversion: Irish airline Ryanair says its crew was informed of a bomb threat by Belarus air traffic controllers on Sunday and ordered to change course and land in the Belarus capital of Minsk, instead of proceeding from Greece to Lithuania as planned, reports CNN. A Belarus fighter jet escorted the Ryanair jet, which was carrying about 170 passengers, to the Minsk airport. Few international officials are buying the story about the bomb threat.

  • The arrest: When the plane landed, authorities arrested 26-year-old Raman Pratasevich, who has organized mass demonstrations against Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko. The latter has been in power for a quarter-century and rules with what the AP describes as an "iron fist." Authorities also detained Pratasevich's girlfriend, Sofia Sapega.
  • Profile: The New York Times takes a closer look at Pratasevich. He is a co-founder of the NEXTA channel on a social media platform Telegram, which is a popular forum for Lukashenko's foes. Pratasevich fled the country in 2019 and had been living in Lithuania. But Belarus authorities charged him in November with fomenting unrest because of his continued political work.
  • Biden test: In the Washington Post, Ishaan Tharoor writes that the "brazen" move by Lukashenko is a test for President Biden. As a candidate, Biden denounced the "systemic repression" under Lukashenko's regime and called out electoral fraud in the last Belarus election. "But what happens next is tricky, not least as Biden prepares for a possible meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin (a Lukashenko ally) next month," writes Tharoor. His analysis runs through some of the options on the table, with some advocating that Biden refuse to recognize Lukashenko as the nation's president and invite opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya to the White House.
  • On the plane: Passengers say they received no explanation for the sudden detour. "We all on the plane had panicked because we thought we were going to crash," Lithuanian passenger Raselle Grigoryeva tells ABC News. "This was a sudden dive, changing the altitude very drastically. It was very violent. I've never felt this on an airplane. Everybody was in shock." Another passenger says Pratasevich appeared to be trying to give his laptop and other items to his girlfriend in the Minsk airport, but she was arrested, too, per the BBC. "I think he made a mistake. There were plenty of people, so he could give the things to me or other passengers."
(Read more Belarus stories.)

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