Belarus president orders fighter jet to force plane carrying dissident to land

Belarus President Aleksandr Lukashenko on Sunday deployed a fighter jet to intercept a European airplane with a prominent opposition journalist on board, forced the plane to divert to the capital Minsk and had the journalist arrested upon landing.

The New York Times reported that journalist Roman Protasevich, 26, was aboard a Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius, Lithuania, along with approximately 170 other passengers. The aircraft was flying over Belarus when Belarusian air traffic controllers informed the pilots of “a potential security threat on board,” and instructed the plane to reroute to Minsk, the airline said in a statement.

Lukashenko, the strongman president who has led Belarus for 26 years, personally directed a MiG-29 fighter jet to accompany the Ryanair plane to the Minsk airport, the Times reported, citing his press service.

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Lukashenko reportedly gave an “unequivocal order” to “make the plane do a U-turn and land,” according to a statement cited by the Times.

According to flightradar24.com data cited by Reuters, the plane was two minutes away from crossing into Lithuanian airspace from Belarus when it was diverted.

Five hours after landing at Minsk, Ryanair said “Nothing untoward was found” and the aircraft was sent back into the air, according to the newspaper.

The Belarus law enforcement sounded a similar note, concluding that there was no bomb found on board, the Times reported.

Protasevich, however, was arrested once the plane touched down in Minsk, the Belarus interior ministry said in a statement according to the Times.

That statement, however, was reportedly deleted from the official Telegram channel later on.

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Protasevich is a co-founder and former editor of NEXTA Telegram channel which, according to the Times, is one of the most popular opposition outlets in the country. Most independent media organizations were forced to shutter operations after large-scale protests and a corresponding crackdown followed a disputed 2020 presidential election.

Protasevich, according to the Times, has been residing in Lithuania in exile out of concerns that he would be imprisoned in Belarus, where he has been accused of inciting hatred and miss disorder.

According to the Times, Protasevich is accused of inciting hatred and mass disorder and faces more than 12 years in prison if he is found guilty.

Belarus’ top investigative agency, known as The Investigative Committee, launched a criminal case to look into the false bomb threat, according to the newspaper.

The actions by Lukashenko drew widespread criticism across Europe.

The president of the European Union Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, called the flight’s force diversion “utterly unacceptable.” Leaders in both Greece and Lithuania also condemned Lukashenko's actions.

Meanwhile Russia, one of Lukashenko's key backers, lauded the operation.