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Belarus forces down plane to seize dissident; Europe sees ‘state hijacking’

  • Anton Troianovski and Ivan Nechepurenko, The New York Times
    Published: 2021-05-24 09:07:40 BdST

The strongman president of Belarus sent a fighter jet to intercept a European airliner travelling through the country’s airspace Sunday and ordered the plane to land in the capital, Minsk, where a prominent opposition journalist aboard was then seized, provoking international outrage.

The stunning gambit by Alexander Lukashenko, a brutal and erratic leader who has clung to power despite huge protests against his government last year, was condemned by European officials, who compared it to hijacking. It underscored that with the support of President Vladimir Putin of Russia, Lukashenko is prepared to go to extraordinary lengths to repress dissent.

The Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius, Lithuania, carrying some 170 passengers — among them the journalist, Roman Protasevich — was flying over Belarus when Belarusian air traffic controllers notified its pilots of “a potential security threat on board” and directed the plane to divert to Minsk, the Ireland-based airline said in a statement.

Lukashenko, often referred to as “Europe’s last dictator,” personally ordered a MiG-29 fighter jet to escort the Ryanair plane to the Minsk airport after a bomb threat, his press service said. According to the statement, Lukashenko gave an “unequivocal order” to “make the plane do a U-turn and land.”

After about seven hours on the ground, the Ryanair Boeing 737-800 took off for Vilnius from Minsk with its passengers and crew, and landed safely at its final destination 35 minutes later.

But not Protasevich.

During the plane's stop in Minsk, he was arrested, the country’s Interior Ministry said in a statement that was later deleted from its official Telegram channel.

After the plane was diverted to Minsk, Protasevich, 26, turned to fellow passengers “and said he was facing the death penalty,” one passenger, Monika Simkiene, told Agence France-Presse in Vilnius.

“He was not screaming, but it was clear that he was very much afraid,” another passenger, Edvinas Dimsa, recalled, according to AFP. “It looked like if the window had been open, he would have jumped out of it.”

Opposition blogger and activist Roman Protasevich, who is accused of participating in an unsanctioned protest at the Kuropaty preserve, waits before the beginning of a court hearing in Minsk, Belarus April 10, 2017. REUTERS

Opposition blogger and activist Roman Protasevich, who is accused of participating in an unsanctioned protest at the Kuropaty preserve, waits before the beginning of a court hearing in Minsk, Belarus April 10, 2017. REUTERS

No bomb was found on board, the country’s law enforcement authorities said. The Investigative Committee, Belarus’ top investigative agency, said it had opened a criminal case into a false bomb threat.

“Nothing untoward was found,” said a statement by Ryanair, a popular low-cost airline.

The International Civil Aviation Organisation, an agency of the United Nations, said it was “strongly concerned” by the incident. The agency said the “apparent forced landing” of the flight may have violated the Chicago Convention, the 1944 accord that established the core principles of international aviation.

The government of Lithuania issued its own statement, saying, “It is an unprecedented attack against the international community: A civilian plane and its passengers have been hijacked by military force.”

Protasevich is a founder and a former editor of the NEXTA Telegram channel, one of the most popular opposition outlets in Belarus. Most independent media organizations in the country were forced to shut down after large-scale protests erupted over a disputed presidential election in 2020. The social network Telegram was left as one of the few means of uncensored communication.

Over the past few years, Protasevich has been living in Lithuania in exile, fearing imprisonment in Belarus, his home country, where he is accused of inciting hatred and mass disorder and faces more than 12 years in prison if convicted. In November, the country’s main security service, still called the KGB, put him on a list of terrorists.

On Sunday, Protasevich was flying back from Greece after attending an economic conference there with Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, Greek officials said.

At the Athens airport, Protasevich had noticed a bald man following him and taking photographs, according to messages he sent that were published by a Telegram channel he edits. After his arrest, colleagues said they had immediately revoked Protasevich’s access to the Telegram channel to make sure that data about its 256,000 subscribers could not fall into the hands of Belarusian law enforcement officials.

Many of Lukashenko’s political opponents have sought safe haven in exile in Lithuania and Poland, but Sunday’s events showed that his government can reach them even in the air.

Both Lithuania and Greece are members of the European Union. Belarus is not. Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, the EU’s executive body, called the plane's diversion “utterly unacceptable.”

The Greek Foreign Ministry called it a “state hijacking.” Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki of Poland called it an “act of state terrorism.” Germany’s foreign minister, Heiko Maas, said that “such an act cannot remain without clear consequences.” His French counterpart, Jean-Yves Le Drian, called for a “firm and unified response” by the EU.

The US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, said: “We strongly condemn the Lukashenka regime’s brazen and shocking act to divert a commercial flight and arrest a journalist. We demand an international investigation and are coordinating with our partners on next steps.”

But even as European officials threatened consequences for Belarus, it was not immediately clear what those might be. The bloc already imposed sanctions last year against leading Minsk officials — including Lukashenko himself — for “violent repression and intimidation of peaceful demonstrators, opposition members and journalists.”

On Sunday, Lithuania’s president, Gitanas Nauseda, describing Belarus’ actions as “abhorrent,” called for its airspace to be declared unsafe and for Belarusian aircraft not to be accepted at EU airports.

In Russia — where the state media described last year’s uprising against Lukashenko as a Western plot — the arrest met with approval among Putin’s supporters. Margarita Simonyan, editor of the pro-Kremlin RT television network, wrote on Twitter that Lukashenko “played it beautifully.” And Vyacheslav Lysakov, a member of parliament allied with Putin, described Protasevich’s arrest as a “brilliant special operation.”

Belarusian authorities said they had ordered the plane to land after receiving information about a bomb threat, though Vilnius, the plane’s destination, was much closer than Minsk when the jetliner turned around, flight-tracking data showed. The country’s Defence Ministry said in another statement that the country’s air defence forces were put on high alert.

Lukashenko and his government are known to use ruses to pursue their political opponents.

Protasevich’s arrest comes months after the biggest wave of street protests in the history of Belarus failed to depose 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 police. NEXTA emerged as the leading online outlet coordinating the demonstrations.

Backed by Putin and using extraordinary violence, Lukashenko managed to successfully crack down on protesters, with the country’s security apparatus remaining loyal to him.

Tikhanovskaya, Lukashenko’s main opponent during the last presidential election in August, which was widely regarded as rigged, called 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 said.

Airline industry observers predicted a strong response from commercial airlines. “The thing that is unprecedented about this incident is that it was state sponsored,” said Kevin Murphy, an analyst at Morgan Stanley.

The reminder that even people hurtling through the air in passenger jets miles above ground can be affected by the tumultuous geopolitics of Eastern Europe evoked the crash of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, which was shot down by Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine in 2014. The apparently accidental attack killed all 298 passengers and crew, and prompted airlines to avoid flying over eastern Ukraine.

On Sunday, after the Ryanair flight finally made it to its destination, the airline issued a statement.

“We apologise sincerely to all affected passengers for this regrettable delay, which was outside Ryanair’s control,” it said.

©2021 The New York Times Company