MOSCOW – The strong Belarusian president sent a fighter plane on Sunday to intercept a European airliner that was flying through the country’s airspace and ordered the plane to land in the capital, Minsk, where a prominent opposition journalist was confiscated on board, causing international outrage evoked.
The breathtaking move by Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, a brutal and unpredictable leader who stayed in power despite major protests against his government last year, has been condemned by European officials who compared him to kidnappings. It was underlined that Mr Lukashenko, with the support of President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, is ready to make extraordinary efforts to suppress dissent.
The Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius, Lithuania, with around 170 passengers – including the journalist Roman Protasevich (26) – flew over Belarus when Belarusian air traffic controllers informed their pilots about “a potential security threat on board” and directed the aircraft to be rerouted to Minsk the Ireland-based airline said in a statement.
Mr. Lukashenko, often referred to as “Europe’s last dictator”, personally ordered a MiG-29 fighter plane to escort the Ryanair plane to Minsk Airport after a bomb threat, his press service said. According to a statement, Mr. Lukashenko gave a “clear order” to “make the aircraft turn around and land”.
After about seven hours on the ground, the Ryanair Boeing 737-800 took off with its passengers and crew from Minsk to Vilnius and landed safely at its final destination 35 minutes later.
But not Mr. Protasevich.
Mr Protasevich was arrested during the plane’s stop in Minsk, the country’s Interior Ministry said in a statement that was later removed from its official telegram channel.
No bomb was found on board, the country’s law enforcement agencies said. The investigative committee, Belarus’ highest investigative body, said it had opened a criminal case for a false bomb threat.
“Nothing unusual was found,” said a statement from Ryanair, a popular low-cost airline.
The International Civil Aviation Organization, a United Nations agency, said it was “seriously concerned” about the incident. The agency said the flight’s “apparent forced landing” may have violated the Chicago Convention, the 1944 treaty that established the basic principles of international aviation.
The Lithuanian government made its own statement, saying: “It is an unprecedented attack on the international community: a civil aircraft and its passengers have been hijacked by military force.”
Mr. Protasevich is the co-founder and former editor of the NEXTA Telegram Channel, one of the most popular opposition agencies in Belarus. Most of the country’s independent media organizations were forced to close after major protests against a controversial presidential election broke out in 2020. The social network telegram was left behind as one of the only means of uncensored communication.
Over the past few years, Mr Protasevich has lived in exile in Lithuania and feared imprisonment in Belarus, his home country, where he is accused of inciting hatred and mass disturbance and, if convicted, faces more than 12 years in prison. In November, the country’s main security agency, still known as the KGB, put him on a terrorist list.
On Sunday, Mr Protasevich flew back from Greece after attending an economic conference there with the Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya.
At the Athens airport, Mr Protasevich had noticed a bald man following him and taking pictures according to messages he had sent and published by a telegram channel he had edited. After his arrest, colleagues said they immediately revoked Mr Protasevich’s access to the Telegram channel to ensure that data on his 256,000 subscribers could not get into the hands of Belarusian law enforcement officials.
The arrest of Mr Protasevich showed how ready Mr Lukashenko is to persecute his political opponents. Many of them have sought a safe haven in exile in Lithuania and Poland, but the events on Sunday showed that Mr Lukashenko can even reach them by air.
Both Lithuania and Greece are members of the European Union. Ursula von der Leyen, the President of the European Commission, the executive body of the EU, described the situation as “absolutely inadmissible”.
The Greek Foreign Ministry called it a “state kidnapping”.
Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said on Twitter: “The forced landing of an airliner to detain a journalist is an unprecedented, shocking act.” He called for increased pressure on Belarus and said: “Enough is enough.”
The operation was also heavily criticized by the Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda, who described it as “hideous” on his Twitter account and demanded that the Belarusian authorities release Mr. Protasevich.
Even when European officials threatened consequences for Belarus, it was not immediately clear what the consequences would be. Last year the bloc imposed sanctions on leading Minsk officials – including Mr Lukashenko himself – for “violent repression and intimidation of peaceful demonstrators, members of the opposition and journalists”.
On Sunday, Lithuanian President Nauseda demanded that Belarusian airspace be declared unsafe and that Belarusian planes should not be accepted at EU airports.
In Russia – where the state media described the uprising against Lukashenko last year as a Western conspiracy – the arrest of Putin’s supporters met with approval. Margarita Simonyan, editor of the Kremlin-friendly RT TV station, wrote on Twitter that Mr. Lukashenko “played it beautifully”. And Vyacheslav Lysakov, a member of parliament allied with Putin, described the arrest of Protasevich as a “brilliant special operation”.
Belarusian authorities said they ordered the plane to land after receiving information about a bomb threat, even though Vilnius, the plane’s target, was much closer than Minsk when it turned. The country’s defense ministry said in another statement that the country’s air defense forces have been placed on alert.
It is known that Mr. Lukashenko and his government use ruse to persecute their political opponents.
Mr Protasevich’s arrest comes months after the largest wave of street protests in Belarusian history failed to depose Mr Lukashenko, who has been the country’s authoritarian leader for more than 26 years.
More than 32,000 protesters were arrested and at least four died during the protests. Hundreds of people were brutally beaten by the police. NEXTA became the leading online outlet coordinating the demonstrations.
With Putin’s support and exceptional violence, Mr Lukashenko managed to crack down on demonstrators successfully, with the country’s security apparatus remaining loyal to him.
Ms. Tikhanovskaya, the main opponent of Mr. Lukashenko during the last presidential election in August, widely viewed as rigged, described the episode with the Ryanair flight as “an operation by the Special Services to hijack an airplane to arrest activist and blogger Roman Protasevich. “
“Not a single person flying over Belarus can be sure of their safety,” she said.
The reminder that even people speeding through the air in passenger jets miles above the ground can be affected by the turbulent geopolitics of Eastern Europe, triggered the crash of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, which was shot down in eastern Ukraine in 2014 by separatists with Russian support Apparently, an accidental attack killed all 298 passengers and crew and advised airlines not to fly over eastern Ukraine.
On Sunday, after the Ryanair flight finally reached its destination, the airline issued a statement.
“We sincerely apologize to all affected passengers for this unfortunate delay, which was beyond Ryanair’s control,” it said.
Matina Stevis-Gridneff reported from Brussels and Niki Kitsantonis from Athens.