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3 Jun, 2021 12:01

Ryanair plane may have landed in Minsk due to fake bomb threat by angry opposition colleague, says Belarusian activist Protasevich

Ryanair plane may have landed in Minsk due to fake bomb threat by angry opposition colleague, says Belarusian activist Protasevich

The jailed Belarusian activist Roman Protasevich, who was arrested last month after his flight was forced to make an emergency landing in Minsk, may have been set up by a colleague with whom he had an intense personal conflict.

That’s according to Protasevich himself, who spoke on the Belarusian state-run television channel ONT. It was not immediately clear whether the activist was under pressure to make the statement, and the Minsk authorities have previously been accused by human rights campaigners, such as Amnesty International, of using torture to gain false confessions and statements from opposition figures.

The activist was arrested on May 23, when a Ryanair jet from Greece was forced to land in Minsk because of a supposed bomb threat. However, the e-mail with the apparent warning was later said by Swiss provider Proton Mail to have been sent after the plane was diverted, contradicting Protasevich's suppositious new assertion.

As soon as the plane touched down, police boarded the aircraft and arrested the activist, along with his girlfriend, Sofia Sapega. Later, when no bomb was found, the plane was allowed to continue to its final destination in Lithuania.

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“I had a personal conflict with one person, quite tense. Especially in recent days,” Protasevich explained. “I wrote in the work chat 40 minutes before the flight where and how I would fly. That person was [in the chat], too. And then this situation happens.”

According to Protasevich, as soon as he was taken to a detention center, he began to think that he had been set up by a colleague, whom he did not name.

“We have two such strong leadership characters. And we are obviously going to have some problems sooner or later,” he explained.

The Belarusian activist also noted that his colleague has a connection with “cyber guerillas” who have a history of using fake bomb threats to ground planes.

However, he clarified that he couldn’t be sure the current situation was “a continuation of the conflict.”

According to others, the Ryanair plane was grounded on the orders of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, who invented a bomb threat to get Protasevich into the custody of the Minsk authorities. Following the incident, described by some as “piracy” and “hijacking,” the European Union decided to prohibit the Belarusian airline Belavia from flying throughout the EU, and also recommended that EU carriers avoid the country’s airspace.

Protasevich was placed on the interstate wanted list last November, when he was editor of the popular opposition Telegram channel NEXTA. According to the authorities, the activist was one of the key figures organizing street riots following August’s presidential election in Belarus. A month before, a Minsk court officially designated NEXTA and its logo as “extremist.”

According to the Investigative Committee in Minsk, Protasevich and his colleague Stepan Putilo called for “protests, blocking roads, strikes, and coordinated unauthorized mass events by indicating specific locations and routes of movement.”

Protests began on August 9, after the presidential election was won by the incumbent, Lukashenko. According to the official results, 80.1% of Belarusian citizens voted for the long-time president, with just 10.12% voting for his most prominent opposition, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya. Opposition figures say the election results were falsified.

As well as his work at NEXTA, Protasevich has worked for US state-run media. It has also been alleged that he fought in the neo-Nazi Azov battalion during the 2014 Ukrainian War. Taking part in the conflict, on either side, was a criminal offense in Belarus.

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