MOSCOW — The tray tables were being raised and the seat backs returned to their upright positions as passengers on Ryanair Flight 4978 prepared for the scheduled landing in the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius. Then the plane made an abrupt U-turn.
For many passengers, it initially seemed like one of those unexpected delays in airline travel. But after the pilot announced the plane had been diverted to Minsk, the capital of Belarus, one passenger — Roman Protasevich, a prominent Belarusian opposition journalist who had been living in exile since 2019 — grew terrified, certain that he faced arrest.
“He panicked because we were about to land in Minsk,” Marius Rutkauskas, who was sitting one row ahead of Protasevich, told the Lithuanian broadcaster LRT upon arrival in Vilnius.
Sunday’s ordeal quickly led to one of the most severe East-West flare-ups in recent years.
Meeting Monday evening in Brussels, European Union leaders called on all EU-based airlines to stop flying over Belarus and began the process of banning Belarusian airlines from flying over the bloc’s airspace or landing in its airports — effectively severing the country’s direct air connections to Western Europe.
The measures represented a harsh Western broadside against Alexander Lukashenko, Belarus’ authoritarian president, who is already under EU sanctions for rights violations over his brutal repression of protests last year. There was no indication, however, that the intensified squeeze would alter Lukashenko’s resolve — especially with President Vladimir Putin of Russia steadfast in his support.
On the contrary, Lukashenko on Monday tightened restrictions on dissent even further, signing new laws that banned things like online livestreams from unauthorized protests.
The moves came as new details trickled out suggesting that the landing of the Ryanair Boeing 737-800 in Minsk on Sunday was an elaborately staged operation, with a bomb hoax and a jet fighter scrambled by Lukashenko to escort the airliner. The Lithuanian police said that of the 126 passengers who took off from Athens, five stayed behind in Minsk — Protasevich and his girlfriend, Sofia Sapega, who were both detained, plus three unidentified individuals.
Uncertainty about the identities of the three unidentified individuals raised questions over whether they had any role in the operation.
“We believe there were some KGB agents offloaded at the airport as well,” Michael O’Leary, the CEO of Ireland-based Ryanair, told Irish radio on Monday. “This was a case of state-sponsored hijacking.”