In a saga that has all the makings of a Netflix spy series, the Russian girlfriend of Belarusian journalist Roman Protasevich was also detained when their Ryanair flight from Greece was diverted to Minsk on Sunday, according to AFP.
The moment Ryanair announced it would be diverting the flight with no explanation, Protasevich, the author of Nexta Telegram channels, who was wanted in Belarus on charges relating to broadcasting opposition protests, immediately opened the overhead compartment to get his laptop and phone, which the 26-year-old activist handed to his Russian companion Sofia Sapega, according to passengers on the flight.
Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary said in a statement that he believed Belarusian KGB agents were on the flight in what he referred to as a “state sponsored hijacking.”
The budget airliner was reportedly forced onto the ground in Minsk by a Soviet-era MIG-29 military jet. European leaders began talking about a coordinated response to the unprecedented state-orchestrated piracy of a commercial jet on Monday, while other airlines—including Air Baltic and Whizz Air—diverted flights around Belarusian airspace, according to flight-tracking websites cited by Conflict News.
It was not immediately clear why Sapega, who studies law in Lithuania at the European Humanities University, was detained. Her university called for her immediate release, saying she was detained on “groundless and made-up conditions.” She was returning to defend her master’s thesis, according to Reuters. “As a result of a cover operation by the Belarusian authorities, the student was detained.”
Several passengers said that when Ryanair was allowed to re-board its flight some seven hours after it was diverted, there were more empty seats than on the flight from Greece.
The U.K. has threatened to work with allies to respond. “We are coordinating with our allies,” Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said. “This outlandish action by [Belarusian President Aexander] Lukashenko will have serious implications.”
U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken also issued a statement. “This shocking act perpetrated by the Lukashenka regime endangered the lives of more than 120 passengers, including US citizens,” he said in a statement. “Initial reports suggesting the involvement of the Belarusian security services and the use of Belarusian military aircraft to escort the plane are deeply concerning and require full investigation.”
On Monday, Lukashenko approved further restrictions on Belarusian media, restricting them from covering any protests against his government—which is the crime Protasevich was wanted for when the Ryanair flight was detained.