MOSCOW — The strongman president of Belarus despatched a fighter jet to intercept a European airliner touring by the nation’s airspace on Sunday and ordered the aircraft to land within the capital, Minsk, the place a distinguished opposition journalist aboard was then seized, scary worldwide outrage.
The beautiful gambit by Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, a brutal and erratic chief who has clung to energy regardless of big protests towards his authorities final 12 months, drew disbelief amongst European leaders. But it surely additionally underscored that with the help of President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, Mr. Lukashenko is ready to go to extraordinary lengths to repress dissent.
The Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius, Lithuania, carrying some 170 passengers — amongst them the journalist, Roman Protasevich, 26 — was flying over Belarus when Belarusian air visitors controllers notified its pilots of “a possible safety risk on board” and directed the aircraft to divert to Minsk, the Eire-based airline stated in a press release.
Mr. Lukashenko, also known as “Europe’s final dictator,” personally ordered a MiG-29 fighter jet to escort the Ryanair aircraft to the Minsk airport, his press service stated. In line with the assertion, Mr. Lukashenko gave an “unequivocal order” to “make the aircraft do a U-turn and land.”
After about 5 hours on the bottom, the Ryanair Boeing 737-800 was cleared for takeoff with its passengers and crew.
“Nothing untoward was discovered,” stated the assertion by Ryanair, a well-liked, low-cost airline.
However Mr. Protasevich stayed behind. Upon the aircraft’s arrival in Minsk, Mr. Protasevich was arrested, the nation’s inside ministry stated in a press release that was later deleted from its official Telegram channel. No bomb was discovered on board, the nation’s regulation enforcement authorities stated. The Investigative Committee, Belarus’s prime investigative company, opened a felony case right into a false bomb risk.
Mr. Protasevich is a co-founder and a former editor of the NEXTA Telegram channel, one of the vital in style opposition shops in Belarus, the place most unbiased media organizations had been compelled to close down following large-scale protests that convulsed the nation following a disputed presidential election in 2020.
Over the previous few years, Mr. Protasevich has been residing in Lithuania in exile, fearing imprisonment in Belarus, his dwelling nation, the place he’s accused of inciting hatred and mass dysfunction and faces greater than 12 years in jail if convicted. In November, the nation’s most important safety service, nonetheless referred to as the Ok.G.B., put Mr. Protasevich on its record of terrorists.
Mr. Protasevich’s arrest demonstrated the lengths to which Mr. Lukashenko is able to go with a purpose to pursue his political opponents. A lot of them have sought secure heaven in exile in Lithuania and Poland, however Sunday’s occasions confirmed that Mr. Lukashenko can attain them even within the air.
Each Lithuania and Greece are members of the European Union. Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Fee, the E.U.’s government physique, referred to as the scenario “completely inadmissible.”
The prime minister of Greece, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, stated on Twitter, “The compelled touchdown of a business aircraft to detain a journalist is an unprecedented, surprising act.” Calling for stepped-up stress on Belarus, he stated, “Sufficient is sufficient.”
The motion additionally drew fierce criticism from Lithuania’s president, Gitanas Nausėda, who called it “abhorrent” in his Twitter account and demanded that the Belarusian authorities launch Mr. Protasevich.
The Belarusian authorities said they took the motion after receiving details about the bomb risk and did so though Vilnius, the aircraft’s vacation spot, was a lot nearer than Minsk when it was compelled down. Mr. Lukashenko and his authorities are identified to make use of ruses to pursue their political opponents.
The nation’s Protection Ministry stated in one other assertion that the nation’s air protection forces had been placed on excessive alert.
Mr. Protasevich’s arrest comes months after the largest wave of road protests within the historical past of Belarus did not depose Mr. Lukashenko, who has been the nation’s authoritarian chief for greater than 26 years.
Greater than 32,000 protesters had been arrested and at the very least 4 died in the course of the protests. A whole lot had been brutally crushed by the police. NEXTA emerged because the main on-line outlet coordinating the demonstrations.
Backed by Mr. Putin and utilizing extraordinary violence, Mr. Lukashenko managed to efficiently crack down on protesters, with the nation’s safety equipment remaining loyal to him.
Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, Mr. Lukashenko’s main opponent over the last presidential election in August, which was broadly considered rigged, referred to as the episode with the Ryanair flight “an operation by the particular companies to hijack an plane with a purpose to detain activist and blogger Roman Protasevich.”
“Not a single one who flies over Belarus could be positive of his security,” she stated.
Matina Stevis-Gridneff contributed reporting from Brussels, and Niki Kitsantonis from Athens.