Ryanair slammed Belarus on Monday over what it described as a “state-sponsored hijacking” of one of its passenger planes, as new details emerged about the brazen operation to arrest a dissident journalist on board Sunday’s flight from Greece to Lithuania.
Ryanair’s CEO Michael O’Leary accused Belarus of “state-sponsored piracy” after its flight 4978 from Athens to Vilnius was diverted by Belarusian air traffic control to Minsk over a supposed security alert.
O’Leary said Belarusian KGB agents were also on the flight that was carrying 26-year-old opposition activist Raman Pratasevich, who is wanted in Belarus on a variety of charges and was detained once the plane landed.
The interception of a commercial flight from one European Union nation to another sparked global condemnation. EU leaders were due to discuss further action against the government of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko later Monday.
“It appears the intent of the authorities was to remove a journalist and his traveling companion, and we believe there were also some KGB agents offloaded off the aircraft,” O’Leary told Newstalk Breakfast radio on Monday.
Similarly, Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney said that secret service agents may have been on the plane, telling RTE’s Morning Ireland program Monday that the agents were “clearly linked to the Belarusian regime.”
“When the plane landed, either five or six people didn’t reboard the plane before it took off again, but only one or two people were actually arrested, so that certainly would suggest that a number of the other people who left the plane were secret service,” he said, adding that he couldn’t be sure the members were KGB agents.
Soon after the plane landed, Pratasevich was arrested along with Sofia Sapega, a Russian student he was traveling with.
Pratasevich is one of dozens of Belarusian journalists and activists campaigning in exile against strongman Lukashenko’s 26-year rule. Pratasevich is the founder of the Telegram channel Nexta, which helped mobilize anti-Lukashenko protests, and was charged last year with “organizing mass riots and group actions that grossly violate public order.” He is on a government wanted list for terrorism.
The pair had been flying from Athens, in Greece, to Vilnius, in Lithuania, when the pilot announced shortly before arriving at their destination that the plane would be diverting to nearby Minsk.
Pratasevich reacted immediately, standing up from his seat, reaching into the overhead locker, pulling a laptop computer from his hand luggage and passing it to a female companion along with his mobile phone, witnesses told Reuters.
“When it was announced they were going to land in Minsk, Roman stood up, opened the luggage compartment, took luggage and was trying to split things,” said a Lithuanian passenger, who gave his name only as Mantas, Reuters reported.
“I think he made a mistake. There were plenty of people so he could give the things to me or other passengers and not the girlfriend, who was also I think arrested.”
Other passengers said Pratasevich looked scared and said he feared would face the death penalty. Marius Rutkauskas was sitting behind Pratasevich, and told Lithuania’s state-owned LRT TV that passengers were initially told the plane would be landing in Minsk due to a technical fault.
“A man sat with his girlfriend and you could see that he started to panic. As I understood, this was the journalist. He panicked because we would be landing in Minsk. He said that the death penalty awaits him in Belarus,” Rutkauskas said.
Similarly, passenger Monika Simkiene told AFP that Pratasevich “just turned to people and said he was facing the death penalty.”
There are conflicting accounts on why the plane changed course last minute. Ryanair says that its crew was “notified by Belarus ATC [air traffic control] of a potential security threat on board and were instructed to divert to the nearest airport, Minsk” — even though the plane was closer to Vilnius than Minsk when it changed course. airport
Meanwhile the Deputy Commander of Belarus’ Air Defense Forces, Major-General Andrey Gurtsevich, claimed that after the Ryanair crew were told of a “possible bomb on board,” it was the captain who “made a decision to land at the reserve airfield (Minsk-2).”
Gurtsevich said a Belarus Air Force MiG29 jet was dispatched to monitor the flight and “assist” if necessary.
The Belarusian government’s version of events has been met with widespread disbelief, despite an elaborate show of fire trucks when the plane landed, as well as extensive baggage checks. Nothing untoward was found, according to Ryanair.
Pratasevich and Sapega were arrested and detained on arrival in Minsk. Student Sapega was preparing to defend her International Law and European Law master’s thesis in Vilinus, according to the European Humanities University (EHU).
“The student was detained by the Administration of the Investigative Committee for the city of Minsk on groundless and made-up conditions,” the EHU said in a statement.
On arrival, Pratasevich’s luggage was checked and sniffer dogs were deployed, but turned up nothing, Reuters reported.
“We saw that Roman was stopped due to some things in the luggage,” passenger Mantas told Reuters, adding that the other passengers also had their luggage checked and were taken by bus to the terminal where they spent several hours waiting to reboard the plane.
“We saw from the window that Roman is standing alone, and one policeman with dog was trying to find something (in his luggage).”
Another passenger, who also did not give his name, told Lithuanian media that Protasevich had identified himself to Belarusian security officials on arrival. “I saw how his passport was taken away. He took off his mask and said: ‘I’m so-and-so and I’m the reason why all this is going on.'”
On Monday the flag carrier of Latvia, airBaltic, said it had “decided to avoid entering Belarus airspace until the situation becomes clearer or a decision is issued by the authorities.”
“The safety and health of our passengers and employees is the main priority for the airline. Currently airBaltic is continuing to closely monitor the situation,” it said.
The incident has been condemned by world leaders, with the Lithuanian government on Monday calling it an “act of state terrorism directed against the security of citizens of the European Union.” The government will ask for Belarus’ airspace be closed to international flights, it said in a statement.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said it was “utterly unacceptable to force @Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius to land in Minsk.”
“The outrageous and illegal behaviour of the regime in Belarus will have consequences. Those responsible for the #Ryanair hijacking must be sanctioned. Journalist Roman Protasevich must be released immediately,” von der Leyen said in a later tweet.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken condemned the incident Sunday and demanded the release of Pratasevich. “This shocking act perpetrated by the Lukashenka regime endangered the lives of more than 120 passengers, including U.S. citizens,” Blinken said in a statement. “Initial reports suggesting the involvement of the Belarusian security services and the use of Belarusian military aircraft to escort the plane are deeply concerning and require full investigation.”
But Belarus has said western countries are acting “hastily” by making “belligerent” statements about Sunday’s incident. Foreign ministry press secretary Anatoliy Glaz told Russian state media RIA Novosti that a “number of countries” and the EU were making “deliberately politicized, unsupported accusations,” and said those nations have “no apparent desire to understand it objectively.”
Glaz defended Belarus’ actions on Sunday as “fully justified,” in order to ensure the safety and security of the passengers and crew. “There is no doubt that the actions of our competent authorities were also in full compliance with the established international rules,” he said
Russia, a key ally of Belarus, said it would not be commenting on the diverted fight. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said in a conference call with journalists Monday that it was for international aviation authorities to determine whether Belarus was compliant with regulations.