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 airplane to land within the capital, Minsk, the place a distinguished opposition journalist aboard was then seized, frightening worldwide outrage.
The beautiful gambit by Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, a brutal and erratic chief who has clung to energy regardless of large protests in opposition to his authorities final 12 months, drew disbelief amongst European leaders. However it additionally underscored that with the assist 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 menace on board” and directed the airplane to divert to Minsk, the Eire-based airline mentioned in a press release.
Mr. Lukashenko, sometimes called “Europe’s final dictator,” personally ordered a MiG-29 fighter jet to escort the Ryanair airplane to the Minsk airport, his press service mentioned. In keeping with the assertion, Mr. Lukashenko gave an “unequivocal order” to “make the airplane 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,” mentioned the assertion by Ryanair, a preferred, low-cost airline.
However Mr. Protasevich stayed behind. Upon the airplane’s arrival in Minsk, Mr. Protasevich was arrested, the nation’s inside ministry mentioned in a press release that was later deleted from its official Telegram channel. No bomb was discovered on board, the nation’s legislation enforcement authorities mentioned. The Investigative Committee, Belarus’s prime investigative company, opened a prison case right into a false bomb menace.
Mr. Protasevich is a co-founder and a former editor of the NEXTA Telegram channel, one of the vital fashionable opposition shops in Belarus, the place most impartial media organizations had been pressured 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 house 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 essential safety service, nonetheless known as the Ok.G.B., put Mr. Protasevich on its listing of terrorists.
Mr. Protasevich’s arrest demonstrated the lengths to which Mr. Lukashenko is able to go so as 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 govt physique, known as the state of affairs “totally inadmissible.”
The prime minister of Greece, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, mentioned on Twitter, “The pressured touchdown of a industrial airplane to detain a journalist is an unprecedented, surprising act.” Calling for stepped-up stress on Belarus, he mentioned, “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 menace and did so although Vilnius, the airplane’s vacation spot, was a lot nearer than Minsk when it was pressured down. Mr. Lukashenko and his authorities are recognized to make use of ruses to pursue their political opponents.
The nation’s Protection Ministry mentioned 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 avenue protests within the historical past of Belarus didn’t 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 not less than 4 died through the protests. Lots of 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, known as the episode with the Ryanair flight “an operation by the particular providers to hijack an plane so as to detain activist and blogger Roman Protasevich.”
“Not a single one that flies over Belarus may be certain of his security,” she mentioned.
Matina Stevis-Gridneff contributed reporting from Brussels, and Niki Kitsantonis from Athens.