U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken issued a stark reprimand of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko on Sunday over allegations that he personally ordered fighter jets as part of the effort to divert a commercial airliner carrying an opposition figure.
The Mig-29 fighters were thought to be responding to a bomb threat, but no bomb was ever found. The opposition figure, 26-year-old journalist Raman Pratasevich, was arrested in Minsk. Critics said the move was tantamount to a government-sanctioned hijacking.
"We strongly condemn the Lukashenko regime’s brazen and shocking act to divert a commercial flight and arrest a journalist," Blinken tweeted. "We demand an international investigation and are coordinating with our partners on next steps. The United States stands with the people of Belarus."
Pratasevich faces charges that reportedly could result in the death penalty. He was aboard a Ryanair flight from Athens to the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius when it changed course to head for Minsk. Flight tracker sites indicated the plane was about six miles from the Lithuanian border when it was diverted.
A witness told Radio Free Europe’s Belarus department that Pratasevich started to panic when the Ryanair flight turned course. When the plane arrived in Minsk, Pratasevich’s luggage was "thrown out on the runway" and he was separated from the rest of the passengers, according to the German news outlet Deutsche Welle.
"We asked him what was going on." one passenger said, according to the outlet. "He told us who he was and added: 'A death penalty awaits me here.' He was a bit calmer, but trembling."
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.
Dominic Raab, the British Foreign Secretary, said, "We are coordinating with our allies. This outlandish action by Lukashenko will have serious implications."
Belarus was rocked by protests since the Aug. 9 election that handed Lukashenko a victory with 80% of the vote, which many claimed was a rigged election.
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.
Exiled opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya called on the International Civil Aviation Organization to begin an investigation.
"It is absolutely obvious that this is an operation by the special services to hijack an aircraft in order to detain activist and blogger Raman Pratasevich," she said in a statement. "Not a single person who flies over Belarus can be sure of his safety."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.