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.
“He was not screaming, but it was clear that he was very much afraid,” another passenger, Edvinas Dimsa, recalled, according to A.F.P. “It looked like if the window had been open, he would have jumped out of it.”
No bomb was found on board, the country’s law enforcement authorities said. The Investigative Committee, Belarus’s top investigative agency, said it had opened a criminal case into a false bomb threat.
“Nothing untoward was found,” said the statement by Ryanair, a popular, low-cost airline.
The International Civil Aviation Organization, an agency of the United Nations, said it was “strongly concerned” about the incident. The agency said that 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.”
Mr. Protasevich is a co-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 only means of uncensored communication.