After high drama in the skies, there is total uncertainty over the whereabouts of dissident Belarusian journalist Roman Protasevich.
"We are very worried about our son ... Unfortunately, we don't know where he is and how he's doing," said Dmitry Protasevich, the father of the 26-year-old journalist who was taken into custody after a Ryanair flight was forced to land in Minsk on Sunday.
Protasevich's father Dmitry hinted that the plot against his son, who was instrumental in organizing the anti-Lukashenko protests in Belarus last year, was a complex one. The careful operation against the dissident journalist did not just involve the country's secret service alone, he said, according to news agency IANS, suggesting that Prime Minister Alexander Lukashenko's close ally Russia too may be part of the plot.
Large Scale Operation
"The operation was of a large enough scale to spit on the entire international community and their opinion ... he said, adding that the forced landing of the flight was 'an act of terrorism'.
Pratasevich had worked for online news outlet NEXTA, which carried footage of mass protests against Lukashenko, who has had an iron grip on Belarus for the last 25 years.
Though he now works for another outlet, Pratasevich is wanted by the Belarusian administration, which smothered the popular pro-democracy movement ruthlessly last year. Pratasevich is accused of extremism and organizing mass riots and of inciting social hatred by Belarus.
Belarus, a former Soviet republic in Eastern Europe bordering EU states Poland, Lithuania and Latvia, was on the boil last year after the opposition accused Lukashenko, 66, with election manipulation.
According to data from flight tracking website flightradar24.com, Ryanair flight 4978 was just two minutes away from crossing into Lithuanian airspace. The flight then changed direction following a "security alert," and descended towards the capital of Belarus, Minsk.
Belarus Denies Hijack Charges
Upon landing in Minsk, Pratasevich was arrested immediately. Ryanair said the flight crew was notified by Belarus ATC of a potential security threat on board and were instructed to divert to the nearest airport, Minsk.
The passenger plane was escorted by a Soviet-era MiG-29 fighter jet of Belarus even as it travelled to Minsk.
However, Belarus denies the hijack charges. According to Belarusian authorities, the Ryanair crew were alerted about a "possible bomb on board." The Deputy Commander of Air Defense Forces, Major-General Andrey Gurtsevich, insists that it was the Ryanair captain who made a decision to land at Minsk-2.
Reuters reported that Protasevich was shaken when he learned that the plane, flying from Athens to Vilnius in Lithuania, was being diverted into Minsk. When he was taken into custody at the reserve airport at Minsk, he screamed in horror that he would face death penalty in Belarus.
There is international condemnation over the hijacking of the plane and the arrest of pro-democracy figure, but Belarus has not been willing to give updates on the whereabouts of Protasevich.