Belarus Forces Down Ryanair Flight Carrying Telegram Founder

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 outstanding opposition journalist aboard was then seized, upsetting worldwide outrage.

The gorgeous gambit by Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, a brutal and erratic chief who has clung to energy regardless of large protests towards his authorities final yr, was condemned by European officers, who known as it a “state hijacking.” But 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 site visitors controllers notified its pilots of “a potential security threat on board” and directed the aircraft to divert to Minsk, the Ireland-based airline mentioned in a press release.

Mr. Lukashenko, also known as “Europe’s last dictator,” personally ordered a MiG-29 fighter jet to escort the Ryanair aircraft to the Minsk airport, his press service mentioned. According to the assertion, Mr. Lukashenko gave an “unequivocal order” to “make the plane 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 found,” mentioned the assertion by Ryanair, a preferred, low-cost airline.

But Mr. Protasevich stayed behind. Upon the aircraft’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, probably the most widespread opposition retailers in Belarus. Most unbiased media organizations within the nation had been compelled to close down after large-scale protests erupted over a disputed presidential election in 2020. The social community Telegram was left as one of many solely technique of uncensored communication.

Roman Protasevich being detained by  law enforcement officials in Minsk, Belarus, in 2017.Credit…Sergei Grits/Associated Press

Over the previous few years, Mr. Protasevich has been residing in Lithuania in exile, fearing imprisonment in Belarus, his residence 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 major safety service, nonetheless known as the Ok.G.B., put Mr. Protasevich on its listing of terrorists. On Sunday, he was flying again from Greece after attending an financial convention there with the Belarusian opposition chief Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, Greek officers mentioned.

At the Athens airport, Mr. Protasevich had observed a bald man following and photographing him, in response to messages he despatched that had been revealed by a Telegram channel he edits. After his arrest, his colleagues working the Telegram channel mentioned they instantly revoked Mr. Protasevich’s entry to it to guarantee that knowledge about its 256,000 subscribers couldn’t fall into the fingers of Belarusian legislation enforcement.

Mr. Protasevich’s arrest demonstrated the lengths to which Mr. Lukashenko is able to go as a way to pursue his political opponents. Many 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.

Both Lithuania and Greece are members of the European Union. Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, the E.U.’s govt physique, known as the state of affairs “utterly inadmissible.” The Greek Foreign Ministry known as it a “state hijacking.”

Greece’s prime minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, mentioned on Twitter, “The forced landing of a commercial plane to detain a journalist is an unprecedented, shocking act.” Calling for stepped-up stress on Belarus, he mentioned, “Enough is enough.”

The motion additionally drew fierce criticism from Lithuania’s president, Gitanas Nausėda, who known as it “abhorrent” in his Twitter account and demanded that the Belarusian authorities launch Mr. Protasevich.

But in Russia — the place the state media described final yr’s rebellion towards Mr. Lukashenko as a Western plot — the arrest met with approval amongst Mr. Putin’s supporters. Margarita Simonyan, editor of the pro-Kremlin RT tv community, wrote on Twitter that Mr. Lukashenko “played it beautifully.” And Vyacheslav Lysakov, a member of Parliament allied with Mr. Putin, described Mr. Protasevich’s arrest as a “brilliant special operation.”

The Belarusian authorities mentioned they took the motion after receiving details about the bomb menace 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 Defense 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 most important wave of avenue 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.

More than 32,000 protesters had been arrested and a minimum of 4 died throughout the protests. Hundreds had been brutally overwhelmed 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.

Ms. Tikhanovskaya, Mr. Lukashenko’s major opponent over the past presidential election in August, which was extensively thought to be rigged, known as the episode with the Ryanair flight “an operation by the special services to hijack an aircraft in order to detain activist and blogger Roman Protasevich.”

“Not a single person who flies over Belarus can be sure of his safety,” she mentioned.

Matina Stevis-Gridneff contributed reporting from Brussels, and Niki Kitsantonis from Athens.