Diverted flight passengers saw Belarus activist 'panicking'

Vilnius (AFP) –


Passengers on Ryanair flight FR4978 described the anxious minutes for opposition blogger Roman Protasevich after he realised that the plane was being diverted to Minsk, where he was later detained.

"He started panicking and saying this was because of him," Monika Simkiene, a 40-year-old Lithuanian, told AFP after the plane finally landed in Vilnius several hours later than its scheduled arrival time.

"He just turned to people and said he was facing the death penalty," she said, adding that once Protasevich understood that he was about to be detained after the plane had landed, he looked "very calm".

Another passenger, Mantas, who declined to give his surname, also said that Protasevich was "nervous at first, but later when he understood he can't change anything, he calmed down and accepted it".

Lithuanian Prime Minister Ingrida Simonyte came to Vilnius Airport for the plane's arrival, as did dozens of Belarusian opposition supporters.

Some were draped in the flags used by the opposition, while others held up signs supporting him, including one that read "Ryanair, Where is Roman?!".

"We have to show our solidarity in order to avoid being broken one by one," said one of the opposition supporters, 36-year-old Aleksandr Glachkov.

He called the detention of Protasevich a "crime".

- 'He would have jumped out' -

Belarus forced the Athens-to-Vilnius plane to land in Minsk and detained Protasevich, who is wanted on various charges in connection with his activism against Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko.

He lives in Poland, where he previously worked as an editor of Nexta, a highly influential Belarusian opposition channel on the Telegram messaging app.

The incident has triggered international outrage and EU threats of further sanctions on Belarus, which has been shaken by unprecedented mass protests since a disputed election last year.

Several passengers remembered seeing the 26-year-old Protasevich rifle through his bags and hand some items to his girlfriend after it became clear that the plane would be landing in Belarus.

Edvinas Dimsa, 37, said he was "not screaming, but it was clear that he was very much afraid.

"It looked like if the window had been open, he would have jumped out of it," he said.

Arthur Six, 25, a Frenchman, said he saw Protasevich appearing to complain to an air steward.

Initially Six also thought Protasevich was "panicking, but after that he became calm again".