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Belarus claims it forced plane to land over Hamas threat; terror group denies it

Government critic Raman Pratasevich, who faces 15 years in jail, arrested and detained when Ryanair plane lands, sparking international outrage

The Ryanair plane with registration number SP-RSM, carrying opposition figure Raman Pratasevich which was traveling from Athens to Vilnius and was diverted to Minsk after a bomb threat, lands at the International Airport outside Vilnius, Lithuania, May 23, 2021.  (AP Photo/Mindaugas Kulbis)
The Ryanair plane with registration number SP-RSM, carrying opposition figure Raman Pratasevich which was traveling from Athens to Vilnius and was diverted to Minsk after a bomb threat, lands at the International Airport outside Vilnius, Lithuania, May 23, 2021. (AP Photo/Mindaugas Kulbis)

A senior Belarus transport official said Monday that the country had received a bomb threat claiming to be from Hamas ahead of the diversion of a Ryanair passenger flight carrying a dissident.

Artem Sikorsky, the head of the aviation department at the transport and communications ministry, read out a letter to journalists that said: “We, the soldiers of Hamas, demand that Israel cease fire in the Gaza Strip. We demand that the European Union renounces its support for Israel in this war… A bomb is planted on this flight. If you do not fulfill our demands, the bomb will explode over Vilnius on May 23.”

Belarus’s dubious claim flies in the face of the ceasefire between Israel and the Gaza-ruling Hamas terror organization , which took effect from Friday, May 21, at 2 a.m., ending 11 days of fighting.

A Hamas spokesman denied the group made the threat.

“We do not use methods like these and it could be that whoever is responsible are suspect elements who seek to slander Hamas and harm the world’s fondness for the Palestinian nation and its legitimate resistance,” Fawzi Barhoum said.

Critics have charged that the forced landing of the Ryanair flight to arrest a dissident on board amounted to “piracy,” and US and European Union officials are reportedly mulling steps to punish Belarus’s authoritarian regime for the incident.

The goal was seemingly to arrest Raman Pratasevich, a 26-year-old activist, journalist, and prominent critic who ran a popular messaging app that played a key role in helping organize massive protests against the authoritarian leader. He and his Russian girlfriend were led off the plane shortly after landing, and authorities have not said where they are being held. The plane, which began its journey in Athens, Greece, was eventually allowed to continue on to Vilnius, Lithuania.

A prominent opponent of Belarus’ authoritarian president Raman Pratasevich attends an opposition rally in Minsk, Belarus, March 25, 2012. (AP Photo)

Ryanair said Belarusian flight controllers told the crew that there was a bomb threat against the plane as it was crossing through the country’s airspace and ordered it to land in the capital of Minsk.

A Belarusian MiG-29 fighter jet was scrambled to escort the plane in a brazen show of force by President Alexander Lukashenko, who has ruled with an iron fist for over a quarter-century. Deputy Air Force Commander Andrei Gurtsevich said the plane’s crew made the decision to land in Minsk.

Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko, accompanied by officials, attends a requiem rally on the occasion of the 35th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster in the town of Bragin, some 360 km (225 miles) south-east of Minsk, Belarus, on April 26, 2021. (Sergei Sheleg/BelTA Pool via AP)

Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda called the incident a “state-sponsored terror act.” He said that the European Council would discuss the case Monday and that he would propose banning Belarusian planes from European Union airports and “serious sanctions” against Lukashenko’s government.

“Belarusian airspace is completely unsafe for any commercial flight, and it should be deemed this not only by the EU but by the international community. Because now, this instrument could be used for any plane crossing Belarusian airspace,” said Lithuania’s foreign minister, Gabrielius Landsbergis.

The Belarus presidential press service said the bomb threat was received while the plane was over Belarusian territory. Officials later said no explosives were found onboard.

Passengers were taken off the plane in Minsk. After the plane arrived in Vilnius, Defense Minister Arvydas Anusauskas said Pratasevich’s girlfriend and four other people did not reboard.

“We will find out who are the other four that did not travel with the rest. Lithuania has launched an investigation to find out what really happened on that plane,” he said on Facebook.

Western countries also expressed alarm.

The Ryanair plane with registration number SP-RSM, carrying opposition figure Raman Pratasevich which was traveling from Athens to Vilnius and was diverted to Minsk after a bomb threat, lands at the International Airport outside Vilnius, Lithuania, May 23, 2021. (AP Photo/Mindaugas Kulbis)

Belarus “showed again its contempt for international community and its citizens,” US Ambassador Julie Fisher said, calling the event “dangerous and abhorrent.”

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen tweeted: “It is utterly unacceptable to force @Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius to land in Minsk.”

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said that “such an act cannot be left without definite consequences from the side of the European Union” and called for Pratasevich to be released.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken called the diversion “shocking” and appealed for Pratasevich’s release. EU leaders were particularly forceful in their condemnation of the arrest and move against the plane, which was flying between two of the bloc’s member nations and was being operated by an airline based in Ireland, also a member.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken at a news conference at the State Department in Washington, May 12, 2021. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, Pool)

“Independent media are an essential pillar supporting the rule of law and a vital component of a democratic society. The United States once again condemns the Lukashenko regime’s ongoing harassment and arbitrary detention of journalists,” Blinken said.

Pratasevich was a co-founder of the Telegram messaging app’s Nexta channel, which played a prominent role in helping to organize major protests against Lukashenko.

Nearly 2 million Belarusians in the nation of 9.3-million people have followed the channel, which has served as the main conduit for organizing demonstrations and offered advice on how to dodge police cordons. It also has run photos, video, and other materials documenting the brutal police crackdown on the protests.

The Belarusian authorities have labeled the channel “extremist” and leveled charges against Pratasevich of inciting mass riots and fanning social hatred. He could face 15 years in prison if convicted.

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