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MOSCOW – The powerful 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 on board was confiscated, causing international outrage evoked.
The breathtaking game by Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, A brutal and unpredictable leader who stayed in power despite major protests against his government over the past year has been condemned by European officials for calling it a “state kidnapping”. However, it was also underlined that Mr Lukashenko, with the support of President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, is ready to go to extraordinary lengths 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, his press service said. According to a statement, Mr. Lukashenko gave a “clear order” to “make the plane turn around and land”.
After about five hours on the ground, the Ryanair Boeing 737-800 was cleared for take-off with its passengers and crew.
“Nothing unusual was found,” said a statement from Ryanair, a popular low-cost airline.
But Mr. Protasevich stayed behind. Mr. Protasevich was arrested on the plane’s arrival 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, the leading investigative agency in Belarus, opened criminal proceedings for a false bomb threat.
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 broke out a controversial presidential election in 2020. The social network telegram was abandoned as one of the few means of uncensored communication.
In recent years, Mr Protasevich has lived in exile in Lithuania and feared detention in Belarus, his home country, where he is accused of inciting hatred and mass disturbances and faces more than 12 years in prison if convicted. In November, the country’s main security agency, still known as the KGB, put Mr Protasevich on its terrorist list. He flew back from Greece on Sunday after attending an economic conference there with Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, Greek officials said.
At the Athens airport, Mr Protasevich had noticed a bald man following him and taking pictures of him, according to messages he had sent and published by a telegram channel he edited. After his arrest, his colleagues who ran the Telegram channel said they immediately denied Mr. Protasevich access to him to ensure that data on his 256,000 subscribers could not get into the hands of Belarusian law enforcement agencies.
The arrest of Mr Protasevich showed how ready Mr Lukashenko is to persecute his political opponents. Many of them have sought safe heaven 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, 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.” Ask for increased pressure on Belarus, he said, “Enough is enough.”
The action was also heavily criticized by Lithuania’s President Gitanas Nausėda called it “hideous” on his Twitter account and asked the Belarusian authorities to release Mr. Protasevich.
But in Russia – where the state media described the uprising against Mr 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 channel, 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 took action after receiving information about the Risk of bombing and did so even though Vilnius, the plane’s target, was much closer than Minsk when it was weighed down. It is known that Mr. Lukashenko and his government use ruse to persecute their political opponents.
The country’s defense ministry said in another statement that the country’s air defense forces have been placed on alert.
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 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.
Matina Stevis-Gridneff reported from Brussels and Niki Kitsantonis from Athens.