The Eastern European country of Belarus has been accused of forcing a Ryanair flight from Athens, Greece to Vilnius, Lithuania to land in Minsk on Sunday so that police could arrest a Belarusian journalist who was onboard the plane. Media reports claim a bomb threat was made against the Ryanair flight and that the plane was intercepted by a Belarus MiG29 fighter jet.
Ryanair flight FR4978 departed Athens at around 9:48 am on Sunday morning and was passing through Belarusian airspace when a bomb threat was reportedly made against the plane. Although the aircraft was close to Vilnius by the time the threat was received, the pilots were ‘forced’ to land in Minsk.
Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the leader of the opposition democratic Belarus claims the journalist and activist Raman Pratasevich, 25, faces the death penalty in Belarus. He fled the country in 2019 following his work reporting on police brutality against protestors who have been rallying against President Alexander Lukashenko.
“Lukashenka’s regime endangered the lives of passengers onboard the plane,” Tsikhanouskaya said in a Twitter post on Sunday. “From now – no one flying over Belarus – can be secure. International reaction needed!”
In November, the Belarusian security service put Pratasevich on a terrorist watchlist. Pratasevich was the editor of the anti-corruption Telegram channel Nexta-Live although he left the channel last September. The only other Belarusian name to appear on the terror watchlist was Nexta-Live’s founder Stsiapan Putsila.
Nexta-Live is Belarus’ most-watched Telegram channel and regularly questions Lukashenko’s recent landslide presidential victory. The European Union does not accept the result of last year’s Belarusian election that kept Lukashenko in power for a sixth term.
“Mr Lukashenko has been in power since 1994, with an authoritarian style reminiscent of the Soviet era, controlling the main media channels, harassing and jailing political opponents and marginalising independent voices,” the BBC reports.
Popular flight tracking website Flightradar24 shared tracking images of the Ryanair operated Boeing 737 aircraft about to leave Belarusian airspace when it makes a sudden right-hand turn and leaves its intended flight path in order to land in Minsk. According to Flightradar24, the aircraft remains on the ground in Minsk.
Some reports claim KGB agents had been tracking Pratasevich and followed him on the flight to Athens. Once the bomb threat had been made they allegedly fought with the cabin crew and insisted there was an improvised explosive device onboard the plane, forcing the pilots to declare a “may day” emergency and divert the plane.
In a statement, a spokesperson for Ryanair said the crew had been “notified by Belarus ATC (air traffic control) of a potential security threat on board and were instructed to divert to the nearest airport, Minsk.”
“The aircraft landed safely and passengers were offloaded while security checks were completed by local authorities,” the emailed statement continued. “Nothing untoward was found and authorities cleared the aircraft to depart together with passengers and crew after approx. 5hrs on the ground in Minsk.”
The Dublin-based airline said it had notified the relevant national European safety and security agencies about the incident. “We apologise sincerely to all affected passengers for this regrettable delay which was outside Ryanair’s control,” the statement concluded.
The current whereabouts of Pratasevich is unknown.
Photo Credit: Markus Mainka / Shutterstock.com
Mateusz Maszczynski honed his skills as an international flight attendant at the most prominent airline in the Middle East and has been flying throughout the COVID-19 pandemic for a well-known European airline. Matt is passionate about the aviation industry and has become an expert in passenger experience and human-centric stories. Always keeping an ear close to the ground, Matt's industry insights, analysis and news coverage is frequently used by some of the biggest names in journalism.