Belarus Forces Down Plane Carrying Dissident and Seizes Him

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, drew disbelief amongst European leaders. But it 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 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 stated in an announcement.

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 stated. 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,” stated 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 stated in an announcement 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 legal 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 crucial widespread 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 dwelling 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 principal safety service, nonetheless known as the Ok.G.B., put Mr. Protasevich on its checklist of terrorists.

Mr. Protasevich’s arrest demonstrated the lengths to which Mr. Lukashenko is able to go in an effort to pursue his political opponents. Many of them have sought protected 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 government physique, known as the scenario “utterly inadmissible.”

The prime minister of Greece, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, stated 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 stated, “Enough is enough.”

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 despite the fact that 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 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 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 not less than 4 died throughout the protests. Hundreds 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 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 stated.

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

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