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Belarus Intercepts Flight Carrying Opposition Activist

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

It seems like the plot of a spy novel, but the story we're about to hear actually happened today. The government of Belarus in Eastern Europe sent a fighter jet to intercept a commercial airliner in midflight. It then forced that plane to land, and a single passenger was detained. He happened to be an opposition activist from Belarus. The aircraft was then allowed to continue its journey without the opposition leader. NPR's Lucian Kim joins us from Moscow with the latest. Lucian, thanks so much for joining us.

LUCIAN KIM, BYLINE: Hi, Michel.

MARTIN: So it just seems so incredible. Tell us the rest of what you know about this.

KIM: Right. Well, Roman Protasevich is the former editor of a Belarusian opposition blog called Nexta. He was taking a flight with the low-cost airline Ryanair from Athens to Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, where he currently lives. Ryanair says that while the plane was over Belarusian airspace, air traffic control notified the crew of a potential security threat on board and ordered the plane to land in Minsk. And that's when Belarus also scrambled that MiG-29 jet to escort the plane.

The crazy thing is that Vilnius, the final destination, is just across the border from Minsk. And flight-tracking websites suggest that the plane was, in fact, closer to Vilnius already. When the plane landed in Minsk, the authorities detained Protasevich and did not find any explosives on board. Critics of the Belarusian regime are calling what happened air piracy and a kidnapping.

MARTIN: So could you just tell us a bit more about who this activist is and if we know anything about what has happened to him since he was detained?

KIM: Right. Well, Roman Protasevich used to be the editor of Nexta, which is a hugely popular opposition channel on the messaging app Telegram. Nexta was used during last year's anti-government demonstrations to share information about protests. It exposed acts of police brutality and torture and became an organizational tool for the opposition, which means it also became a target of the regime. Protasevich faces multiple charges in Belarus from organizing mass riots to inciting hatred. He's also on a terrorist list. According to reports citing fellow passengers on that flight, he told them he expects to be executed in Belarus. So we can only imagine what's happening to him right now.

MARTIN: And I understand that there has already been international condemnation of this incident. Is there - what could the international community do?

KIM: That's right. The prime minister of Poland, for example, called the diversion of the flight an act of state terrorism. The exiled Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya is calling for an investigation by the International Civil Aviation Organization and for new sanctions against the Belarusian regime. So it's possible that in the future, flights may be diverted around Belarusian airspace, or perhaps there will be sanctions against Belarus' national carrier.

But the United States and the European Union have already imposed sanctions on the regime of Alexander Lukashenko. So it's not clear how much effect new ones will have. Lukashenko is feeling cornered. And in this isolation, he has turned to his one friend, Russian President Vladimir Putin, for support. And, in fact, he's expected to meet Putin later this week.

MARTIN: That is NPR's Lucian Kim in Moscow. Lucian, thank you so much.

KIM: Thanks, Michel.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.