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Belarus claim Hamas bomb threat behind plane diversion

May 25, 2021 at 10:30 am

Belarusians living in Poland and Poles supporting them hold up a placard reading ‘Free Roman Protasevich’ during a demonstration in front of the European Commission office in Warsaw on 24 May 2021, demanding freedom for Belarus opposition activist Roman Protasevich a day after a Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius carrying the dissident journalist was diverted while in Belarusian airspace. [WOJTEK RADWANSKI/AFP via Getty Images]

Belarus has claimed that a bomb threat from Hamas was the reason it diverted a plane to Minsk where authorities then arrested a journalist on board.

The claim was likely an attempt to quell the international outcry following the arrest of Roman Protasevich, a journalist critical of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, on Sunday.

Protasevich, 26, was on board a Ryanair flight with his girlfriend Sofia Sapega, 23, from Greece to Lithuania. When it flew over Belarusian airspace a warplane forced it to make an unscheduled landing in Minsk.

His girlfriend was also arrested.

The following day Belarusian authorities released what was allegedly the text of the bomb alert, however Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum has denied his group had any knowledge or connection with the threat.

Monika Simkiene, another passenger on the plane, told AFP, that when passengers were told the plane was landing in Minsk Protasevich started panicking: “He turned to people and said he was facing the death penalty.”

“Don’t do this, they will kill me, I am a refugee,” he said to a flight attendant.

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The journalist had told friends that a man who he believed to be from the security services had been following him at Athens airport.

Protasevich co-founded the Nexta channel on Telegram, which – with two million subscribers – allowed opposition members to bypass state censorship to mobilise street protests.

There were mass demonstrations in August last year after Lukashenko claimed victory in elections that the opposition says were rigged.

The president has been in power for 27 years.

Along with Stephan Svetlov, Protasevich was put on a list for “individuals involved in terrorist activity.”

Western governments are now threatening to place new sanctions on Belarus.

The EU has summoned Belarus’ ambassador following the move against the plane, which was flying between two of the bloc’s member nations.

Czech Prime Minister said: “The scandalous incident in Belarus shows signs of state terrorism and it’s unbelievable.”

EU Commission President Urusal von der Leyen says it amounted to “hijacking”.

The UK has requested airlines avoid Belarusian airspace and a permit allowing the Belarusian airline Belavia to operate in the UK was being suspended.