Did Belarus ‘hijack’ a civilian airliner to detain an activist?
By Tim Lister, CNN
Updated 8:29 PM ET, Sun May 23, 2021
(CNN)Ryanair flight 4978 was about to begin its descent to Vilnius in Lithuania on Sunday when it suddenly changed direction after a “security alert,” turning sharply east and descending towards the capital of Belarus, Minsk.Whether that security alert was a fabrication by the Belarus authorities is now at the heart of an incident which has sparked widespread international condemnation and raised serious questions about safety in the skies. Some governments have described the incident as a state-sanctioned hijacking.
One of the passengers on board the Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius was Belarus opposition activist Raman Pratasevich, who is wanted on a variety of charges. For him the diversion was much more than an inconvenience. As soon as the plane landed, he was arrested, according to the Belarus Interior Ministry.
The President of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, has been fending off opposition protests since claiming victory last year after a hotly-disputed election widely condemned by the international community.
Pratasevich is one of dozens of journalists and activists campaigning in exile against Lukashenko’s 26-year rule. He 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.Just why the plane suddenly changed course depends on whose account one believes. 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.”
That’s not how the Belarus authorities characterized the incident. The Deputy Commander of 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 Belarus version of events has been met with widespread disbelief and condemnation among the international community, despite an elaborate show of fire trucks when the plane landed, as well as extensive baggage checks. Nothing untoward was found, according to Ryanair.One reason for skepticism toward the Belarusian authorities’ version: When it changed course, the Ryanair Boeing 737 — with 171 people on board — was much closer to its destination than it was to Minsk. Had there been a bomb on board, to prolong the flight would have been a perverse decision.
Europe and the US dismiss the Belarus government’s explanation
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen tweeted that 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.Josep Borrell, the European Union’s top diplomat, said the forced landing was “totally inadmissible,” while France’s Transport Minister Jean-Baptiste Djebbari was blunter still, tweeting that “hijacking a plane is unacceptable.”British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said that “this outlandish action by Lukashenko will have serious implications.”US also diplomats also weighed in, with US Ambassador to Belarus Julie Fisher tweeting, “Lukashenka and his regime today showed again its contempt for international community and its citizens.”Faking a bomb threat and sending MiG-29s to force @RyanAir to Minsk in order to arrest a @Nexta journalist on politically motivated charges is dangerous and abhorrent.”A senior Republican in Congress, Rep. Michael McCaul said on Twitter. “To force an Irish aircraft with nearly 200 innocent civilians to land in order to make that arrest is an egregious affront to democratic societies around the world.”The flight was traveling from one EU city to another, briefly passing through Belarus’ airspace, and its diversion has serious implications for internationally accepted rules of aviation travel.The challenge for the European Union and its allies is to come up urgently with actions to reinforce their strong words, as German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas acknowledged when he tweeted “This cannot remain without clear consequences on the part of the EU.”But Lukashenko has previously shrugged off EU sanctions aimed at him and his inner circle. It is — after all — not a group that’s deeply dependent on the outside world.Deeper sanctions would hurt the people of Belarus as much as the regime. In any case, Belarus is not economically beholden to western Europe. The EU accounts for less than 20% of Belarus’ trade; Russia accounts for 49%.The EU had already suspended moves towards closer economic relations with Belarus before last year’s widely criticized elections.It’s unclear whether the European Union will take up the incident with the International Civil Aviation Organization, the body entrusted with regulating the world’s skies. The ICAO told CNN Sunday that “for the time being this represents a bilateral matter between the specific countries involved. Any investigations would need to be undertaken by suitable national authorities,” who could submit a complaint to ICAO’s Council or Assembly.ICAO later said it was “strongly concerned by the apparent forced landing of a Ryanair flight and its passengers, which could be in contravention of the Chicago Convention.” The convention governs rules of airspace, aircraft registration and safety.At dusk Sunday, flight 4978 finally left Minsk after seven hours on the ground — but minus one very significant passenger. Other opposition figures now fear for Pratasevich’s safety.Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who ran against Lukashenko last year and is now in exile in Lithuania, told CNN Sunday: “We really don’t what’s happening to him (Pratasevich) right now and we know how cruel [Belarus security service] can be.”
Tsikhanouskaya said she had been on the same flight from Athens to Vilnius last week. “The escalation of repressions in Belarus, and this situation that’s happened with [the] flight is a result of impunity,” she told CNN.”Democratic countries should put much more pressure on this regime on Lukashenko personally to make him understand that.”
US Secretary of State Blinken leads condemnation of Belarus President Lukashenko for faking a bomb threat on aircraft and sending fighter jets to arrest a journalist: US Ambassador to Belarus calls it ‘dangerous and abhorrent’
- US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has led worldwide condemnation of Alexander Lukashenko after Belarusian authorities hijacked a Ryanair flight
- Passenger plane was flying from Athens to Vilnius when it was forced to make emergency landing in Minsk
- Airliner was escorted by a Soviet-era MiG-29 fighter jet amid ‘bogus’ reports of a bomb on board
- Roman Protasevich, 26, an opponent of President Lukashenko was taken off the plane and arrested
- Blinken demanded the immediate release of Protasevich and said the US ‘stands with the Belarusian people’
PUBLISHED: 19:09 EDT, 23 May 2021 | UPDATED: 20:18 EDT, 23 May 2021
United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken has blasted Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko after Belarusian authorities hijacked a Ryanair flight.
‘We strongly condemn the Lukashenka regime’s brazen and shocking act to divert a commercial flight and arrest a journalist,’ Blinken said in a statement Sunday evening.
Blinken called for the immediate release of Roman Protasevich, 26, an opponent of President Lukashenko was taken off the plane and arrested. Dailymail.co.uk: News, Sport, Showbiz, Celebrities from Daily MailPauseNext video0:31 / 1:43SettingsFull-screenRead More
‘We demand an international investigation and are coordinating with our partners on next steps. The United States stands with the people of Belarus.’
The passenger plane full of tourists had been flying from Athens in Greece to Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, when it was escorted by a Soviet-era MiG-29 fighter jet amid reports of a bomb on board.
The airliner was forced to make an emergency landing at Minsk Airport in Belarus, where authorities arrested Protasevich, a critic of Lukashenko who founded opposition news outlet Nexta in Poland.
Julie Fisher, the US Ambassador to Belarus, earlier voiced her anger at the provocation.
‘Lukashenko and his regime today showed again its contempt for international community and its citizens. Faking a bomb threat and sending MiG-29s to force @RyanAir to Minsk in order to arrest a @Nexta journalist on politically motivated charges is dangerous and abhorrent.’
European countries have joined in the wave of condemnation against Belarus, with Britain calling Lukashenko a ‘Putin puppet’.+16
The Ryanair flight left Athens bound for Vilnius in Lithuania Sunday morning, but it was intercepted by a MiG-29 fighter jet over Belarussian airspace and ordered to land at Minsk+16
The US’s top diplomat Antony Blinken blasted Belarus for faking a bomb threat on a Ryanair flight to kidnap a journalist
The Ryanair flight was forced to land in Belarus following a ‘bogus bomb threat’ that was allegedly used as a ploy to arrest an opposition activist Roman Protasevich (pictured)
The airliner full of tourists made an emergency landing at Minsk Airport today after being escorted by a MiG-29 fighter jet amid reports of a bomb on board Diverted Ryanair plane due to ‘bomb threat’ lands in Minsk
Former US Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul said: ‘This Lukashenko action is completely outrageous. Time for Europe to act.’
Garry Kasparov, the former chess world champion and outspoken critic of Putin, said: ‘I assume that Lukashenko’s explanation will be “go to hell” as usual. And then what? Action, finally? The EU enables such terrorism with inaction, and it inevitably goes from domestic to international terror.’
Reports say Protasevich’s activism has led to him being included on a terror list, for which he could face the death penalty. Belarus is the last country in Europe to use the death penalty.
Critics of Lukashenko, regarded by many as the so-called last strongman of Europe, claimed the incident was confected by Minsk in order to detain Protasevich. They also claim Lukashenko would never have dared the move in EU airspace without receiving a green light from Vladimir Putin, his closest ally.
The US and Britain are calling for toughening existing sanctions against Belarus, as European leaders from Germany, the Baltic states and the Czech Republic slammed the ‘outlandish’ Ryanair hijacking as ‘outrageous’, ‘illegal’ and an ‘act of state terrorism’.
Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab tweeted: ‘The UK is alarmed by reports of the arrest of journalist Roman Protasevich & circumstances that led to his flight being forced to land in Minsk. We are coordinating with our allies. This outlandish action by Lukashenko will have serious implications.’
Brussels is set to discuss strengthening sanctions against Belarus, imposed over the crackdown by the Lukashenko regime on opposition protesters, at a pre-planned summit on Monday.
EU chief Ursula von der Leyen tweeted: ‘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.’
Polish premier Mateusz Morawiecki denounced Belarus’s actions as ‘an act of state terrorism’, while French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian called for a ‘strong and united response’ from the EU. Lithuania and Latvia have called for international flights not to use Belarusian airspace.
Greek premier Kyriakos Mitsotakis denounced the Belarusian intervention of the Ryanair flight. He said: ‘The forced landing of a commercial plane to detain a journalist is an unprecedented, shocking act.
‘We demand all passengers’ immediate release. Tomorrow’s #EUCO [European Council] must address the need to step up pressure on Belarus. Enough is enough.’
NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg also said he was closely monitoring the situation, tweeting: ‘Closely monitoring forcible landing in Belarus of flight to Vilnius and reported detention of opposition figure Roman Protasevich.
‘This is a serious & dangerous incident which requires international investigation. Belarus must ensure safe return of crew & all passengers.’
An official Belarus Telegram channel claimed they saved Europe from a terrorist incident in bringing down the Ryanair plane bound for the Lithuanian capital Vilnius.
The Belarus defense ministry confirmed the detention of Protasevich, who had been living in exile.
Human rights center Vesna also said: ‘Roman Protasevich was detained. He was on the Ryanair flight Athens-Vilnius.’ +16
Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s full statement on Belarus’s diversion of a Ryanair passenger flight
NEXTA, Protasevich’s outlet, was closely involved in reporting a wave of opposition protests that last year threatened to topple Lukashenko, before he was given backing by Vladimir Putin
Data from the flightradar24.com website showed the plane was diverted just two minutes before it was due to cross into Lithuanian airspace.
After several hours in Minsk, the plane took off again for Vilnius, a top EU official said. Protasevich was not on board the flight this time.
After finally landing in Vilnius several hours after the scheduled time of arrival, some passengers described seeing the blogger looking nervous as the flight was diverted to Belarus.
‘He just turned to people and said he was facing the death penalty,’ Monika Simkiene, a 40-year-old Lithuanian, told AFP.
Edvinas Dimsa, 37, said: ‘He was not screaming, but it was clear that he was very much afraid. It looked like if the window had been open, he would have jumped out of it.’
Opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, widely seen to have won last year’s presidential election against Lukashenko before being forced into exile, said: ‘It is absolutely obvious that this is an operation by the special services to hijack an aircraft in order to detain the activist and blogger Roman Protasevich.
‘The regime endangered the safety of passengers on board and all civil aviation for the sake of reprisals against a man who was the editor of the largest Belarusian independent Telegram channels.
‘Only for this he was recognized as a terrorist, and only for this now in Belarus Roman can face the death penalty.
‘We have already informed the Ryanair office and the International Civil Aviation Organisation, demanding to start an investigation into the incident and take measures up to the exclusion of Belarus from ICAO,’ Tikhanovskaya added.
Meanwhile the Prime Minister of Estonia Kaja Kallas said: ‘Absolutely inexplicable and shocking reports from Belarus about detaining Roman Protasevich and forcing the plane to land.
‘All passengers should be immediately released and a thorough international investigation should follow. EU must take a stand together.
MEP Roberta Metsola also called for Europe to act now in response to the forced landing.
She said: ‘Now is the time for Europe to act in unison. Extended sanctions, independent international investigations and immediate release of dissidents.
‘We must be able to guarantee safety and security of air passenger travel. Leaders meeting at #EUCO tomorrow must act.’
The incident is certain to worsen already dire relations between the West and Belarus, which has been tightly controlled since 1994 by President Alexander Lukashenko.
Opponents accuse him of rigging a presidential election in his own favour last year and of then cracking down violently on the opposition. He denies electoral fraud.Call for inquiry into plane diverted carrying opposition journalist
British Conservative MP Damian Collins condemned the ‘hijacking’ in a statement. He said: ‘This is an appalling act of hijacking by a rogue state.
‘Belarus must release Roman Protasevich, give him safe passage to Lithuania and compensate the airline and passengers. Without this they should face serious sanctions.’
Ryanair said in a statement that the plane’s crew was notified by Belarus of a potential security threat on board and were instructed to divert to the nearest airport, Minsk.
The plane landed safely, passengers were offloaded and security checks were made by local authorities, it said, saying it expected the aircraft to resume its journey later on Sunday.
Protasevich worked for an online opposition news service Nexta, a Telegram channel that broadcast footage of mass protests against Lukashenko last year at a time when it was hard for foreign media to do so.
He is wanted in Belarus on extremism charges and stands accused of organising mass riots and of inciting social hatred, allegations he denies.
Belarusian news agency BelTA reported that Lukashenko had personally ordered the warplane to escort the Ryanair plane to Minsk. No explosives were found, it said.+16
Police officers detained Roman Protasevich after he was attempting to cover a rally in Minsk, Belarus on 26 March 2017
Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda called for an international response.
‘I call on NATO and EU allies to immediately react to the threat posed to international civil aviation by the Belarus regime. The international community must take immediate steps that this does not repeat,’ Nauseda said.
Lithuanian presidential adviser Asta Skaisgiryte said the operation to force the plane carrying around 170 people from 12 countries to land seemed to be pre-planned.
Protasevich had said that at Athens airport a bald Russian-speaking middle-aged man had attempted to film the main page of his passport. He then turned and left.+16
The Ryanair plane, which was carrying blogger Roman Protasevich and was diverted to Belarus, lands at Vilnius Airport in Vilnius, Lithuania on Sunday
NEXTA was closely involved in reporting a wave of opposition protests that last year threatened to topple Lukashenko, before he was given backing by Vladimir Putin
A message being retweeted in Russia read: ‘Detention of Protasevich (NEXTA) is a splendid, beautiful, complicated, (operation) in the best traditions of the Soviet KGB, the work of the Belorussian CHEKA (state security). You are cool!’
NEXTA reported: ‘Protasevich was on board a flight heading from Athens to Vilnius. He faces the death penalty in Belarus.
‘The Lukashists [derogatory term for supporters of embattled President Lukashenko] seized the plane in order to arrest Protasevich,’ the channel said.
The Belarus authorities claimed its bomb-disposal squad was examining the plane.
The official Minsk version said: ‘Belarus defended Europe. Information has been received that the plane has been mined.’
The plane had almost left Belarus air space but was forced to land in Minsk.
‘The situation was immediately reported to the President. Lukashenko gave an unconditional command to turn the plane around and receive it.
‘In this situation, the most important thing is the safety and lives of people.’
The Belarusian department for organised crime control reported that Protasevich had been detained before deleting the statement from its Telegram channel.
Around 35,000 people have been detained in Belarus since August, human rights groups say. Dozens have received jail terms. Authorities say that more than 1,000 criminal cases have been launched.