World, Europe

Belarus grounds plane with dissident, but history tells of more forced landings

Previous incidents show planes not safe havens for global dissidents

Handan Kazanci  | 28.05.2021 - Update : 28.05.2021
Belarus grounds plane with dissident, but history tells of more forced landings


It drew international outrage when Belarusian authorities grounded a passenger aircraft carrying an opposition journalist who was flying from Greece to Lithuania through Belarus' airspace.

But this was not the first time when a country tried to arrest a dissident on board. History shows planes are not safe havens for global dissidents.

After a “security alert,” the Lithuania-bound plane suddenly changed its direction and a Belarusian MiG-29 fighter jet was scrambled to escort the plane to the Minsk airport, where authorities arrested journalist Roman Protasevich and his girlfriend Sofia Sapega.

Both the EU and the US condemned the incident, while some European leaders called it “hijacking” and the US State Department described it as a “shocking act”.

However, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova criticized the response from the EU and the US. “[It is] shocking that the West calls the incident in the airspace of Belarus ‘shocking’,” she wrote on Facebook.

The International Civil Aviation Organization said on Twitter that it was “strongly concerned by the apparent forced landing of a Ryanair flight and its passengers, which could be in contravention of the Chicago Convention.”

“We look forward to more information being officially confirmed by the countries and operators concerned,” the UN agency added.

Protasevich is the founder of a social media news channel that reportedly played a major role in protests last summer in the Belarusian capital of Minsk, demanding the resignation of President Alexander Lukashenko after he won a sixth term in a presidential election.

2016 Ukraine

In 2016, a plane of Belarusian flag-carrier Belavia was forced to return after it took off from the Ukrainian capital Kyiv for Minsk, close to the airspace boundary between Ukraine and Belarus. Ukrainian air traffic control ordered the plane to return without any explanation, according to a report by FlightGlobal, an aviation and aerospace news website.

“It was also stated that in the event of non-compliance with the order, fighters would be [sent to intercept],” FlightGlobal quoted the carrier as saying.

An Armenian passenger, who reportedly opposed the Ukrainian government and its closer ties with Europe, was briefly arrested by police, and the plane was allowed to return, according to the report. The passenger was only allowed to return there hours after.

The Belarusian Foreign Ministry slammed Ukraine after the incident.

2013 Austria

In 2013, Evo Morales was forced to land in Austria when some European countries denied the plane of then-president of Bolivia entry into their airspace.

Morales was traveling to Bolivia following a Moscow summit where he announced that he would grant asylum to US whistleblower Edward Snowden. Although Bolivia denied it, Austria reportedly searched the plane for Snowden.

Former US National Security Agency contractor Snowden, who leaked thousands of documents detailing a long-term surveillance program by the US government, was given asylum in Russia in 2013.

2012 Turkey

In 2012, Turkish fighter jets forced a Syrian passenger plane, which was en route from Moscow to Damascus, to land at Esenboga Airport in the capital Ankara.

Ankara suspected that the plane would be carrying weapons for the Syrian army. Turkey seized part of the plane’s cargo, and it was allowed to continue its flight to Damascus, according to reports. Then-Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said that Ankara was determined to prevent any weapons transfer to Syria over its airspace.

2010 Iran

In 2010, Iran arrested Abdolmalek Rigi, leader of the militant outfit Jundullah, when he was flying from an Arab country via Pakistan, according to some reports.

There are conflicting reports on how Rigi was arrested. Some reports alleged he was on board a flight from Dubai to Kyrgyzstan, while others claimed that Rigi was handed over to Iran by the Pakistani authorities.

Iranian state media showed Rigi when he was handcuffed and escorted by masked Iranian security of the small plane.

1956 Algeria

In 1956, five senior members of the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN) were on board a passenger plane en route to Tunisia from Rabat, Morocco. The French secret service sent fighter jets to intercept their plane and forced it to land in Algeria as it was then a French colony. Among the five people on board was Ahmed Ben Bella, who later become Algeria’s first president when it declared its independence.

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