MOSCOW — The tray tables have been being raised and the seat backs returned to their upright positions as passengers on Ryanair Flight 4978 ready for the scheduled touchdown within the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius. Then the aircraft made an abrupt U-turn.
For a lot of passengers, it initially appeared like a type of sudden delays in airline journey. However after the pilot introduced the aircraft had been diverted to Minsk, the capital of Belarus, one passenger — Roman Protasevich, a distinguished Belarusian opposition journalist who had been dwelling in exile since 2019 — grew terrified, sure that he confronted arrest.
“He panicked as a result of we have been about to land in Minsk,” Marius Rutkauskas, who was sitting one row forward of Mr. Protasevich, instructed the Lithuanian broadcaster LRT upon arrival in Vilnius.
Sunday’s ordeal — described by many European officers as a unprecedented, state-sponsored hijacking by Belarus to grab Mr. Protasevich — rapidly led to some of the extreme East-West flare-ups lately.
Assembly Monday night in Brussels, European Union leaders known as on all E.U.- primarily based airways to cease flying over Belarus and started the method of banning Belarusian airways from flying over the bloc’s airspace or touchdown in its airports — successfully severing the nation’s direct air connections to Western Europe.
The measures represented a harsh Western broadside towards Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, Belarus’s authoritarian president, who’s already beneath E.U. sanctions for rights violations over his brutal repression of protests final yr. There was no indication, nevertheless, that the intensified squeeze would alter Mr. Lukashenko’s resolve — particularly with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia steadfast in his assist.
Quite the opposite, Mr. Lukashenko on Monday tightened restrictions on dissent even additional, signing new legal guidelines that banned issues like on-line reside streams from unauthorized protests.
“Lukashenko doesn’t see it essential to bow to the West’s calls for — he has Russia, which he depends on,” mentioned Artyom Shraibman, a Minsk-based nonresident scholar on the Carnegie Moscow Middle. “He has not been cornered.”
The strikes got here as new particulars trickled out suggesting that the touchdown of the Ryanair Boeing 737-800 in Minsk on Sunday was an elaborately staged operation, with a bomb hoax and a fighter jet scrambled by Mr. Lukashenko to escort the airliner. The Lithuanian police mentioned that of the 126 passengers who took off from Athens, 5 stayed behind in Minsk — Mr. Protasevich and his girlfriend, Sofia Sapega, who have been each detained, plus three unidentified people.
One Lithuanian official mentioned the three included two Belarusian residents and one Greek. However uncertainty about their identities raised questions over whether or not they had any position within the operation.
“We consider there have been some Ok.G.B. brokers offloaded on the airport as effectively,” Michael O’Leary, the C.E.O. of Eire-based Ryanair, instructed Irish radio on Monday. “This was a case of state-sponsored hijacking.”
Belarusian state tv broadcast a report rejecting the concept there have been Ok.G.B. brokers on the aircraft, as an alternative exhibiting three individuals who mentioned on digicam that they’d determined to remain in Minsk by their very own selecting. They included a Greek man who mentioned he had been touring to Vilnius on his option to go to his spouse in Minsk.
In Lithuania, the police launched an investigation on suspicion of hijacking and kidnapping, and interviewed passengers and crew. They have been instructed that the fighter jet dispatched by Mr. Lukashenko to escort the flight had not pressured the Ryanair aircraft to land, in keeping with folks with information of the investigation who weren’t licensed to talk publicly.
As a substitute, these folks mentioned, the pilot had determined to land the aircraft in Minsk after Belarusian air visitors management had requested that he accomplish that due to a bomb risk on board.
“The choice was made by the captain of the liner after consulting with Ryanair administration,” Rolandas Kiskis, head of the Lithuanian Prison Police Bureau, instructed reporters in Vilnius.
However no bomb was found, contributing to accusations that it was all a ruse to get the aircraft to land.
The arrested journalist, Mr. Protasevich, who co-founded an account on the social media app Telegram that helped provoke and coordinate the mass protests towards Mr. Lukashenko final yr, had been positioned on a listing of terrorists by the Ok.G.B., Belarus’s intelligence service, nonetheless identified by its Soviet-era initials.
A professional-Lukashenko Telegram account posted a 29-second video of Mr. Protasevich late Monday night. It confirmed him sitting with arms folded at a wood desk, telling the digicam that he’s in Minsk’s central Detention Middle No. 1 and is being handled “with most correctness.” It was paying homage to different confessional movies that critics of Mr. Lukashenko have been pressured to document whereas in jail.
“I proceed to cooperate with the investigation and am giving confessional testimony on costs of organizing mass unrest within the metropolis of Minsk,” Mr. Protasevich mentioned.
The video was the newest signal that Mr. Lukashenko, who has dominated for 26 years, didn’t intend to shirk from confrontation with the West. An official within the Belarus Transportation Ministry, Artyom Sikorsky, on Monday doubled down on Minsk’s official model of occasions: that the aircraft had been diverted due to a bomb risk. He learn out an electronic mail that he mentioned had been despatched to the Minsk airport from somebody who claimed to be representing Hamas — the Palestinian militant group — threatening to punish the European Union for supporting Israel within the latest conflict. (Hamas denied any connection to the incident, Reuters reported.)
By the tip of the day, Mr. Lukashenko had plunged headfirst into one more diplomatic showdown. He expelled the ambassador and the whole diplomatic workers of neighboring Latvia from Minsk in response to the mayor of Riga, Latvia, hoisting the white-red-white flag of the Belarusian opposition.
A main motive for Mr. Lukashenko’s obvious confidence was seen in Moscow, the place Russian officers and pro-Kremlin commentators lined as much as voice their assist.
“We take into account this concern to be a home affair of Belarus,” Maria V. Zakharova, the Russian Overseas Ministry’s spokeswoman, mentioned, in keeping with Interfax. “The actions of the Belarusian aviation authorities have been consistent with worldwide requirements.”
The Worldwide Civil Aviation Group, an arm of the United Nations, has mentioned the Belarus motion could have violated a longstanding treaty that has ruled industrial airways for many years. The group known as an urgent meeting for Thursday to debate it.
Lately, Mr. Lukashenko had profited by enjoying the pursuits of Russia and the West off towards each other. However amid final summer time’s in style rebellion towards him over his disputed re-election, Mr. Lukashenko threw in his lot with Mr. Putin — and has relied on his assist ever since.
Final yr, the European Union sanctioned Belarus officers — together with Mr. Lukashenko — over human rights abuses, to little obvious impact. The flight bans might have a better influence, at the very least on common folks; the summer time 2021 timetable of Belavia, Belarus’s nationwide provider, contains flights to twenty E.U. cities.
And a few analysts mentioned the restrictions might require pricey rerouting for European airways, that are already avoiding elements of Ukraine, Belarus’s southern neighbor, due to battle with Russia.
The flight bans might trigger new issues for Mr. Lukashenko inside his nation, the place the benefit of journey to the neighboring European Union had lengthy softened the strictures of dwelling inside an authoritarian state. Ukraine, which isn’t a member of the E.U., additionally mentioned it will ban flights to and from Belarus. The rising isolation implies that Belarusians will more and more must journey east to Russia with a view to get in another country.
Yevgeny Lipkovich, a well-liked Minsk-based blogger and commentator crucial of Mr. Lukashenko, mentioned that his personal travels overseas had allowed him to “stay an optimist, regardless of the regime’s finest efforts to pressure me into despair.”
“In the event that they shut down the air loophole, there’s no query that the strain contained in the nation will improve,” Mr. Lipkovich mentioned. “And it’s disgusting to reside in a pariah state.”
Reporting was contributed by Ivan Nechepurenko from Moscow; Tomas Dapkus from Vilnius, Lithuania; Stanley Reed from London; and Matina Stevis-Gridneff and Monika Pronczuk from Brussels.