Belarus Is Isolated as Other Countries Move to Ban Flights

MOSCOW — The tray tables have been being raised and the seat backs returned to their upright positions as passengers on Ryanair Flight 4978 ready for the scheduled touchdown within the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius. Then the aircraft made an abrupt U-turn.

For many passengers, it initially appeared like a type of surprising delays in airline journey. But after the pilot introduced the aircraft had been diverted to Minsk, the capital of Belarus, one passenger — Roman Protasevich, a outstanding Belarusian opposition journalist who had been residing in exile since 2019 — grew terrified, sure that he confronted arrest.

“He panicked because we were about to land in Minsk,” Marius Rutkauskas, who was sitting one row forward of Mr. Protasevich, advised the Lithuanian broadcaster LRT upon arrival in Vilnius.

Sunday’s ordeal — described by many European officers as a rare, state-sponsored hijacking by Belarus to seize Mr. Protasevich — rapidly led to one of the crucial extreme East-West flare-ups lately.

Meeting Monday night in Brussels, European Union leaders referred to as on all E.U.- based mostly airways to cease flying over Belarus and commenced the method of banning Belarusian airways from flying over the bloc’s airspace or touchdown in its airports — successfully severing the nation’s direct air connections to Western Europe.

A Belavia Airlines jet touchdown in Montenegro final summer season. The E.U. has begun the method of banning flights from Belarus into the bloc’s airspace.Credit…Stevo Vasiljevic/Reuters

The measures represented a harsh Western broadside towards Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, Belarus’s authoritarian president, who’s already beneath E.U. sanctions for rights violations over his brutal repression of protests final 12 months. There was no indication, nonetheless, that the intensified squeeze would alter Mr. Lukashenko’s resolve — particularly with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia steadfast in his help.

On the opposite, Mr. Lukashenko on Monday tightened restrictions on dissent even additional, signing new legal guidelines that banned issues like on-line dwell streams from unauthorized protests.

“Lukashenko does not see it necessary to bow to the West’s demands — he has Russia, which he relies on,” stated Artyom Shraibman, a Minsk-based nonresident scholar on the Carnegie Moscow Center. “He has not been cornered.”

The strikes got here as new particulars trickled out suggesting that the touchdown of the Ryanair Boeing 737-800 in Minsk on Sunday was an elaborately staged operation, with a bomb hoax and a fighter jet scrambled by Mr. Lukashenko to escort the airliner. The Lithuanian police stated that of the 126 passengers who took off from Athens, 5 stayed behind in Minsk — Mr. Protasevich and his girlfriend, Sofia Sapega, who have been each detained, plus three unidentified people.

Mr. Lukashenko assembly with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia in Moscow final month.Credit…Mikhail Klimentyev/Sputnik, by way of Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

One Lithuanian official stated the three included two Belarusian residents and one Greek. But uncertainty about their identities raised questions over whether or not they had any function within the operation.

“We believe there were some K.G.B. agents offloaded at the airport as well,” Michael O’Leary, the C.E.O. of Ireland-based Ryanair, advised Irish radio on Monday. “This was a case of state-sponsored hijacking.”

Belarusian state tv broadcast a report rejecting the thought there have been Ok.G.B. brokers on the aircraft, as an alternative exhibiting three individuals who stated on digicam that they’d determined to keep in Minsk by their very own selecting. They included a Greek man who stated he had been touring to Vilnius on his manner to go to his spouse in Minsk.

In Lithuania, the police launched an investigation on suspicion of hijacking and kidnapping, and interviewed passengers and crew. They have been advised that the fighter jet dispatched by Mr. Lukashenko to escort the flight had not pressured the Ryanair aircraft to land, in accordance to individuals with data of the investigation who weren’t approved to communicate publicly.

Belarus Detains Dissident ›

Live Updates

Updated May 24, 2021, four:15 p.m. ETThe E.U. strikes rapidly to isolate Belarus, denouncing its aircraft interception.Passengers recall the worry that gripped the dissident journalist as their flight was diverted.Who is Roman Protasevich, the detained journalist?

Instead, these individuals stated, the pilot had determined to land the aircraft in Minsk after Belarusian air visitors management had requested that he achieve this due to a bomb risk on board.

“The decision was made by the captain of the liner after consulting with Ryanair management,” Rolandas Kiskis, head of the Lithuanian Criminal Police Bureau, advised reporters in Vilnius.

But no bomb was found, contributing to accusations that it was all a ruse to get the aircraft to land.

The arrested journalist, Mr. Protasevich, who co-founded an account on the social media app Telegram that helped provoke and coordinate the mass protests towards Mr. Lukashenko final 12 months, had been positioned on an inventory of terrorists by the Ok.G.B., Belarus’s intelligence service, nonetheless identified by its Soviet-era initials.

A professional-Lukashenko Telegram account posted a 29-second video of Mr. Protasevich late Monday night. It confirmed him sitting with arms folded at a picket desk, telling the digicam that he’s in Minsk’s central Detention Center No. 1 and is being handled “with maximum correctness.” It was harking back to different confessional movies that critics of Mr. Lukashenko have been pressured to report whereas in jail.

An picture from a video posted by a pro-Lukashenko account on Monday, through which Mr. Protasevich stated he was being handled with “maximum correctness.”Credit…[email protected], by way of Reuters

“I continue to cooperate with the investigation and am giving confessional testimony on charges of organizing mass unrest in the city of Minsk,” Mr. Protasevich stated.

The video was the most recent signal that Mr. Lukashenko, who has dominated for 26 years, didn’t intend to shirk from confrontation with the West. An official within the Belarus Transportation Ministry, Artyom Sikorsky, on Monday doubled down on Minsk’s official model of occasions: that the aircraft had been diverted due to a bomb risk. He learn out an electronic mail that he stated had been despatched to the Minsk airport from somebody who claimed to be representing Hamas — the Palestinian militant group — threatening to punish the European Union for supporting Israel within the latest conflict. (Hamas denied any connection to the incident, Reuters reported.)

By the top of the day, Mr. Lukashenko had plunged headfirst into one more diplomatic showdown. He expelled the ambassador and your entire diplomatic employees of neighboring Latvia from Minsk in response to the mayor of Riga, Latvia, hoisting the white-red-white flag of the Belarusian opposition.

The former flag of Belarus, middle, flies in Riga, Latvia on Monday. The use of the historic flag, an emblem of the opposition occasion, led to the expulsion of Latvian diplomats from Belarus.Credit…Martins Zilgalvis/Associated Press

A main cause for Mr. Lukashenko’s obvious confidence was seen in Moscow, the place Russian officers and pro-Kremlin commentators lined up to voice their help.

“We consider this issue to be a domestic affair of Belarus,” Maria V. Zakharova, the Russian Foreign Ministry’s spokeswoman, stated, in accordance to Interfax. “The actions of the Belarusian aviation authorities were in line with international standards.”

The International Civil Aviation Organization, an arm of the United Nations, has stated the Belarus motion might have violated a longstanding treaty that has ruled business airways for many years. The group referred to as an pressing assembly for Thursday to talk about it.

In latest years, Mr. Lukashenko had profited by taking part in the pursuits of Russia and the West off towards each other. But amid final summer season’s common rebellion towards him over his disputed re-election, Mr. Lukashenko threw in his lot with Mr. Putin — and has relied on his help ever since.

Last 12 months, the European Union sanctioned Belarus officers — together with Mr. Lukashenko — over human rights abuses, to little obvious impact. The flight bans may have a higher influence, at the very least on common individuals; the summer season 2021 timetable of Belavia, Belarus’s nationwide service, contains flights to 20 E.U. cities.

And some analysts stated the restrictions may require expensive rerouting for European airways, that are already avoiding elements of Ukraine, Belarus’s southern neighbor, due to battle with Russia.

The flight bans may trigger new issues for Mr. Lukashenko inside his nation, the place the convenience of journey to the neighboring European Union had lengthy softened the strictures of residing inside an authoritarian state. Ukraine, which isn’t a member of the E.U., additionally stated it might ban flights to and from Belarus. The rising isolation signifies that Belarusians will more and more want to journey east to Russia so as to get in a foreign country.

Yevgeny Lipkovich, a preferred Minsk-based blogger and commentator crucial of Mr. Lukashenko, stated that his personal travels overseas had allowed him to “remain an optimist, despite the regime’s best efforts to force me into depression.”

“If they close down the air loophole, there’s no question that the pressure inside the country will increase,” Mr. Lipkovich stated. “And it’s disgusting to live in a pariah state.”

Reporting was contributed by Ivan Nechepurenko from Moscow; Tomas Dapkus from Vilnius, Lithuania; Stanley Reed from London; and Matina Stevis-Gridneff and Monika Pronczuk from Brussels.