The strongman president of Belarus sent a fighter jet to intercept a European airliner traveling through the country’s airspace on 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 Aleksandr G. 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 V. Putin of Russia, Mr. 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.
Mr. 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, Mr. 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 Mr. 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, Mr. Protasevich, 26, turned to fellow passengers “and said he was facing the death penalty,” one passenger, Monika Simkiene, told Agence France-Presse in Vilnius. [Continue reading…]