Adding a stunning twist to the alleged hijacking of a Ryanair flight to arrest Lukashenko critic Roman Protasevich, Belarus has said a bomb threat from militant group Hamas was behind the security crisis.
Belarus said it received a message from the Palestinian militant group, which said it would blow up the Lithuania-bound flight over Belarussian airspace.
Ryanair flight 4978 was just two minutes away from crossing into Lithuanian airspace when it was diverted to Minsk. The flight was enroute to Vilnius from Athens. The flight then changed direction following a "security alert," and descended towards the capital of Belarus, Minsk.
Once it landed in the reserve airport in Minsk, Belarusian authorities stormed the plane and arrested Protasevich, who has been on the country's most wanted list ever since he helped organize the pro-democracy protests in the former Soviet republic last year.
Facing widespread condemnation across the world and with many countries in the European Union cancelling flights over Belarus, the government claimed that it acted after the Hamas sent in a direct threat.
Hamas Threat Over Gas Conflict
According to Minsk, Hamas said it would bomb the plane over Belarusian airspace if the European Union did not condemn the Gaza airstrikes of Israel.
"We, Hamas soldiers, demand that Israel stop firing on the Gaza sector," the message they received read, according to Belarusian transport ministry director Artem Sikorski.
"We demand that the European Union cease its support for Israel (...) if our demands are not met a bomb will explode (on board of the Ryanair plane) over Vilnius," the purported Hamas message read, according to the Euronews.
Several EU leaders believe the plane was hijacked by Belarus. The incident sparked fury in international circles where concerns were raised over passenger safety. Some capitals called the Belarusian action as state-sanctioned hijacking.
Pratasevich and a dozen other journalists were a constant thorn on the side of Lukashenko, who fended off opposition protests last year using heavy-handed tactics. Pratasevich was instrumental in organizing protests against Lukshenko's 26-year rule.
US Demands Release of Pratasevich
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the arrest of the journalist was a "shocking act" and called for the immediate release of Protasevich. Lithuania, where Protasevich was living, asked the European Union and NATO to respond.
The head of EU's executive European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, said people responsible for the Ryanair hijacking must be sanctioned and that EU leaders meeting in Brussels would discuss the next course of action.