Ryanair has described what appears to have been a highly elaborate plot by the Belarus state security apparatus to divert one of Ryanair’s planes in order to arrest a dissident blogger who was onboard as “an act of aviation piracy”. Earlier on Monday, Ryanair chief executive Michael O’Leary told reporters the incident “was a case of state-sponsored hijacking”.
On Sunday, Ryanair flight FR4978 from Athens to Vilnius, Lithuania was intercepted by a MiG29 fighter jet as it flew through Belarusian airspace after authorities claimed a bomb threat had been made against the aircraft.
The Boeing 737 aircraft with 129 passengers onboard, including the journalist and activist Raman Pratasevich who was wanted as a ‘terrorist’ in Belarus, was forced to divert and land in Minsk despite being closer to Vilnius when the bomb threat was received.
Once on the ground, Pratasevich and his girlfriend were whisked into custody by police who had been lying in wait.
Initially, Ryanair refused to acknowledge Pratasevich’s disappearance and simply said the aircraft and its passengers had been allowed back onboard after “nothing untoward” was found. Ryanair also failed to mention that four passengers with Russian passports and believed to be KGB agents also offloaded themselves in Minsk.
On Monday morning, Ryanair issued a more hardline statement, saying: “Ryanair condemns the unlawful actions of Belarusian authorities who diverted Ryanair’s flight FR4978 to Minsk yesterday (23 May), which was an act of aviation piracy”.
“This is now being dealt with by EU safety and security agencies & NATO. Ryanair is fully cooperating with them and we cannot comment further for security reasons,” the statement continued.
O’Leary also suggested that KGB agents had been onboard the flight during a telephone interview on Monday.
Unlike some other airlines, Ryanair hasn’t, however, taken the decision to stop flying through Belarusian airspace. On Monday, flight FR3340 from Pafos to Tallinn entered Belarusian airspace just as Ryanair’s press team issued its updated statement.
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.
The flight diversion, which is believed to have been given the direct go-ahead from Lukashenko himself, has attracted condemnation from political leaders around the world. European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen described the incident as “outrageous and illegal” and promised consequences.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the United States strongly condemned Lukashenko’s “brazen and shocking act to divert a commercial flight and arrest a journalist”.
“We demand an international investigation and are coordinating with our partners on next steps,” Blinken said in a Twitter post on Sunday.
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.