Belarus threatened to shoot down the Ryanair jet which was yesterday forced to land on a bogus bomb threat, aviation experts have claimed.
Opposition journalist Roman Protasevich, 26, a passenger on the plane, was detained with his girlfriend Sofia Sapega, 23, after the flight from Greece to Lithuania was forced to make an emergency landing in Minsk.
Ryanair boss Michael O’Leary today condemned the ‘state-sponsored hijacking’ and said ‘we believe there were some KGB agents offloaded at the airport as well.’
It comes amid suspicions over the role of up to four mystery Russians on board the aircraft who voluntarily left the plane in Minsk, not continuing with the flight when it flew to its final destination in Vilnius.
Their presence has stoked fears the Kremlin’s agents were involved in a murky operation to arrest Protasevich who had begged the crew not to follow the order, saying ‘they will kill me’ and telling a fellow passenger on the ground that he faced ‘the death penalty.’
He is a prolific journalist opposing Belarus president Alexander Lukashenko and was wanted for his role in encouraging mass protests against the dictator last year.
Tory MP Tom Tugendhat called it ‘a warlike act,’ joining the British government and other Western countries who have condemned the grounding of the Boeing 737 which had 123 passengers on board.
‘This was a flight between two NATO members and between two EU members,’ the Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman told Radio 4. ‘If it’s not an act of war, it’s certainly a warlike act.’
Aviation experts have claimed that Belarus threatened to shoot down the Athens to Vilnius Ryanair flight unless it did not land immediately (pictured: a MiG-29 fighter jet involved in the incident arriving back at base in Belarus). Their presence has stoked fears of Russian secret services involvement in a murky operation to arrest opposition journalist Roman Protasevich, 26, a passenger on the plane who was detained with his girlfriend Sofia Sapega, 23, in Minsk
A 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 yesterday after being escorted by a MiG-29 fighter jet amid reports of a bomb on board
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
Opposition journalist Roman Protasevich’s girlfriend Sofia Sapega who was also detained
Journalists and Belarusian activists wait to see passengers of the Ryanair plane carrying opposition figure Raman Pratasevich at the International Airport outside Vilnius, Lithuania
Ryanair flight FR4978 had been flying from Athens in Greece to Vilnius in Lithuania when it was escorted by a Soviet-era MiG-29 fighter jet to Belarus amid fake reports of an IED on board. It was forced to make an emergency landing at Minsk Airport, where authorities arrested dissident journalist Roman Protasevich
ROMAN PROTASEVICH: OPPOSITION BLOGGER FORCED INTO EXILE
Protasevich, 26, has long been a thorn in the side of Belarus’s hardline dictator Alexander Lukashenko.
He worked as an editor at the Poland-based Nexta Live channel, which is based on the Telegram messenger app and has over 1 million subscribers. The channel, which is openly hostile to Lukashenko, played an important role in broadcasting huge opposition protests against the President last year.
Nexta also helped coordinate those same protests, which were sparked by anger over what the opposition said was a rigged presidential election. The channel’s footage, which showed how harshly police cracked down on demonstrators, was used widely by international media at a time when the Belarusian authorities were reluctant to allow foreign media in.
In November Protasevich published a copy of an official Belarusian list of terrorists on which his name figured. The listing said he was accused of organising mass riots while working at Nexta. He also stands accused of disrupting social order and of inciting social hatred. He regards the allegations, which could see him jailed for years, as unjustified political repression.
Protasevich fled Belarus for Poland in 2019 due to pressure from the authorities, according to Media Solidarity, a group that supports Belarusian journalists. He moved his parents to Poland too after they were put under surveillance. He later relocated to Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, where opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya is also based.
Protasevich is currently editor-in-chief of a Belarusian political outlet hosted on the Telegram messaging app called ‘Belarus of the Brain’ which has around a quarter of a million subscribers.
He was flying back to Vilnius from Greece where he had spent time taking photographs of a visit there by Tsikhanouskaya. He had posted the pictures to social media before flying back.
– By REUTERS
It is also clear the plane was significantly closer to Vilnius than Minsk, making a mockery of the claim that it should land at the nearest airport amid a bomb threat rather than return to the Belarus capital.
Leading opposition figure Pavel Latushko said: ‘The air traffic controllers of Minsk-2 airport threatened to shoot at the Ryanair civilian plane with passengers on board.
‘For this reason, a military fighter MiG-29 of Belarus Air Force was sent.
‘This proves again that this incident was an act of state terrorism… It demands an immediate reaction of European authorities and the entire world community.’
Latushko heads the National Anti-Crisis Management, a shadow government set up last year by the Belarusian Coordination Council for the peaceful transfer of power following the ‘rigged’ 2020 election, widely seen as stolen by President Alexander Lukashenko.
He is a former culture minister of Belarus and was the country’s ambassador to France, Spain and Portugal before joining the opposition.
The claim about the shooting had come via the Belarus civil aviation authority, he said.
It was backed by Vadim Lukashevich, a Moscow-based aviation expert, who said: ‘To make it crystal clear – the pilots of the Ryanair plane that was forced to land in Belarus were pulling towards the destination Vilnius until the last possible moment.
‘They had to turn back under the threat of a fighter jet when the distance to Vilnius airport was only 45 miles away and only 19 miles to the Lithuanian border.’
He claimed the Ryanair pilots were ‘heading towards Lithuania without slowing down… they were escaping from the fighter jet, and they turned back just two minutes before crossing the Lithuanian border. ‘
Flightradar data showed the plane had not slowed to descend at the usual height on this route but appeared to be flying as fast as possible to the border – befiore abruptly turning back, seemingly on the orders of the MiG-29.
He is convinced that ‘the fighter had permission to shoot’, he said.
‘And I am absolutely sure that the crew of the passenger aircraft turned around only after receiving a notification from the Belarusian fighter that, in case of disobedience, it would open fire before the passenger plane left the airspace of Belarus.’
Mantas, a Lithuanian passenger of Ryanair flight FR4978, speaks to the media after arriving at Vilnius Airport, Lithuania
Belarusian dog handler checks luggage from the Ryanair flight in Minsk International Airport on May 23
The Belarus authorities claimed its bomb-disposal squad was examining the plane
A passenger named Raselle (pcitured), a beautician, was videoed on the plane when it landed in Minsk posted a message to say that Protasevich had said to the flight attendant: ‘Don’t do this, they will kill me. I am refugee. ‘He answered: We must, we have no choice, it’s in Ryanair legal agreements.’
Was Ryanair hijacking a KGB sting? Ally of arrested blogger claims Russian spies ‘initiated fight with cabin crew by insisting there was a bomb on board’
A member of the Nexta team, Tadeusz Giczan, said on Twitter that representatives of the Belarusian security agency had been on the flight with Protasevich.
‘Then when the plane had entered Belarus airspace, the KGB officers initiated a fight with the Ryanair crew insisting there’s an IED onboard,’ he said.
A spokeswoman for state company Lithuanian Airports, Lina Beisine, told AFP that Minsk airport had said the flight was redirected ‘due to a conflict between a member of the crew and the passengers’.
Ryanair said the flight’s crew had been notified by Belarus air traffic control of ‘a potential security threat on board’ and were instructed to divert to Minsk, the ‘nearest’ airport.
The EU and the United States have sanctioned Lukashenko and dozens of officials and businessmen tied to his regime with asset freezes and visa bans.
The opposition protests in Belarus, which left at least four people dead, have now subsided, but journalists and activists continue to receive prison sentences in the aftermath
Such an order could only be given by the Belarus president, dictator Alexander Lukashenko.
Meanwhile, a leading Russian investigative journalist Roman Dobrokhotov revealed that as well as Protasevich’s girlfriend Sofia Sapega, four Russian passengers who had been on the flight to Lithuania left it in Minsk.
He claimed: ‘Four citizens of Russia did not continue the flight to Vilnius.
‘This operation was escorted by Russian special services.’
One of Russia’s most respected independent journalists Alexey Venediktov, editor-in-chief of Echo Moscow radio, said: ‘Four more Russians didn’t follow on to Vilnius, but left the plane in Minsk, and dissolved into the nature.’
Another source suggests there were three not four Russians who left the plane, but in any event their identities are not known.
A meme has gone wild on social media portraying as pilots the GRU military intelligence pair Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov who poisoned the Sergei and Yulia Skripal, reflecting a suspicion that Russian special services were involved in the Ryanair plot.
Sofia is a student of the European Humanities University, now based in Vilnius, after its forced closure by Lukashenko’s authorities in Minsk.
She is a Russian citizen, and the university where she studies international law has expressed deep concern for her fate.
Political detainees in Belarus are frequently tortured by the KGB secret service and police.
A passenger named Raselle, a beautician, was videoed on the plane when it landed in Minsk posted a message to say that Protasevich had said to the flight attendant: ‘Don’t do this, they will kill me. I am refugee.
‘He answered: We must, we have no choice, it’s in Ryanair legal agreements.’
A female passenger on the plane said that Protasevich looked ‘super scared’.
‘I looked directly into his eyes and he was very sad,’ she said.
Planes from regional airline Air Baltic have already started bypassing Belarus air space.
A woman covered with an old Belarusian national flag holds a phone with a sticker in colors of an old Belarusian national flag as she waits to see passengers of the Ryanair plane carrying opposition figure Raman Pratasevich
The Ryanair plane, which was carrying blogger Roman Protasevich and was diverted to Belarus, lands at Vilnius Airport in Vilnius, Lithuania on Sunday
The Ryanair flight is parked at Minsk International Airport on Sunday after it was stopped by authorities
Passengers on the Ryanair flight filmed Belarusian officials walking towards the plane before Protasevich was arrested (left) while sniffer dogs searched bags (right)
Lithuanian Prime Minister Ingrida Simonyte came to Vilnius Airport for the plane’s arrival on Sunday, as did dozens of Belarusian opposition supporters
Lithuania – a former Soviet state now in the EU and NATO – has led Western calls for action against its neighbour, Belarus.
‘It is an unprecedented attack against the international community: a civilian plane and its passengers have been hijacked by military force, and a Belarusian citizen has been abducted, whose life and health are in danger,’ said a government statement.
‘It is unjustifiable that ordinary international travellers have been held hostage to the regime’s aggression.
‘This is the act of state terrorism directed against the security of citizens of the European Union and other countries, civil society of Belarus seeking asylum from the regime’s persecution, as well as international civil aviation.
‘Lithuania will demand a clear and uncompromising response from the international community.’
Britain’s Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said in a statement on Monday: ‘The UK condemns yesterday’s actions by the Belarusian authorities, who arrested journalist Roman Protasevich on the basis of a ruse, having forced his flight to land in Minsk. Mr Lukashenko must be held to account for his outlandish actions.
‘The UK calls for the immediate release of Mr Protasevich and other political prisoners held in Belarus. The UK is working with our allies on a coordinated response, including further sanctions. The UK also calls for the ICAO Council to meet urgently to consider the regime’s flouting of the international rules safeguarding civil aviation.’
Ireland, where the budget airline Ryanair is based, was also withering in its condemnation for the Belarusian government, saying it would not allow ‘state-sponsored piracy’ to go unpunished.
‘We cannot allow this incident to pass on the basis of warnings or strong press releases,’ Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney told state broadcaster RTE.
‘I think there has to be real edge to the sanctions that are applied on the back of this. This was effectively aviation piracy, state-sponsored,’ Coveney said.
EU leaders are to meet later on Monday and are expected to toughen sanctions against the eastern European state.
‘It was an Irish airline, a plane that was registered in Poland, full of EU nationals, travelling between two EU capitals,’ said Coveney. ‘This can only be described as aviation piracy,’ he added.
‘I think the EU has to give a very clear response to it otherwise we’re giving all the wrong signals.’
Police officers detained Roman Protasevich after he was attempting to cover a rally in Minsk, Belarus on 26 March 2017
The 27 EU leaders open a two-day summit later Monday and the issue immediately shot to the top the agenda amid united condemnation of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko.
EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell called it ‘yet another blatant attempt by the Belarusian authorities to silence all opposition voices.’ He called the diversion of the plane an ‘inadmissible step’ highlighting a further worsening in relations between both sides.
The Belarusian Foreign Ministry on Monday bristled at what it described as ‘belligerent’ EU statements, insisting that the country’s authorities acted ‘in full conformity with international rules.’
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken called the incident ‘shocking’ and accused the Belarusian government of endangering the lives of those aboard the aircraft, including some Americans. He called for the release of Pratasevich and for the Council of the International Civil Aviation Organization to review the incident.
‘I saw this Belarusian guy with girlfriend sitting right behind us. He freaked out when the pilot said the plane is diverted to Minsk. He said there’s death penalty awaiting him there,’ passenger Marius Rutkauskas said after the plane finally arrived in Vilnius.
‘We sat for an hour after the landing. Then they started releasing passengers and took those two. We did not see them again.’
Pratasevich was a co-founder of the Telegram messaging app’s Nexta channel, which played a prominent role in helping organise major protests against Belarus’ President Alexander Lukashenko.
The Belarusian authorities have designated it as extremist and levered charges of inciting riots against Pratasevich, who could face 15 years in prison if convicted.
Months of protests in Belarus were fueled by Lukashenko’s election to a sixth presidential term in an August vote that the opposition denounced as rigged.
More than 34,000 people have been arrested in Belarus since August, and thousands were brutally beaten.