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US accuses Belarusian officials of hijacking flight carrying dissident journalist

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US accuses Belarusian officials of hijacking flight carrying dissident journalist

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Leonid Churo, director of the state air navigation agency, Belaeronavigatsia Republican Unitary Air Navigation Services Enterprise, and three others have been charged with one count of conspiracy to hijack aircraft, for issuing a false bomb threat to Minsk air traffic control and then covering up speeding the move by ordering air traffic controllers to falsify incident reports on the hijacking of the passenger plane.

“The defendants are based in Belarus and remain at large,” a statement from the US Department of Justice said Thursday.

The initial flight route on May 23, 2021 was from Athens, Greece, to Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital – a path that crosses Belarus.

According to the charges, Churo personally called the false bomb threat and ordered Minsk air traffic control to divert the passenger plane to Minsk.

The diversion led to the arrest of leading Belarusian opposition activist Roman Protasevich and his girlfriend, creating an international outcry.

The incident came as Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko had pushed back opposition protests since claiming victory after a hotly contested election widely condemned by the international community.

Protasevich was one of dozens of journalists and activists campaigning in exile against Lukashenko’s regime.

Lukashenko, in power since 1994, was abruptly sworn in to his sixth consecutive term in September 2020 following an election the European Union has called illegitimate.

Amid ensuing mass protests in Belarus, Lukashenko and the state security apparatus have been forcibly expelled from the country or detained prominent opposition figures.

Protasevich is the founder of the Telegram channel Nexta, which has helped mobilize anti-Lukashenko protests. He was charged in 2020 with “organizing mass riots and group actions which seriously violate public order”.

Last June, Protasevich appeared on Belarusian state media, where he said he had “pleaded guilty” to staging large-scale “unauthorized protests” following the country’s disputed elections.

Critics of the government feared the young dissident would be forced to address the nation under duress.

Later that month, Protasevich was moved from a detention center to house arrest, Reuters reported.

CNN’s Tim Lister, Olga Pavlova, Zahra Ullah and Hanna Yahrova contributed reporting.

US accuses Belarusian officials of hijacking flight carrying dissident journalist

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