Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary accused Belarus of “state-sponsored piracy” after its flight 4978 from Athens to Vilnius was hijacked by Belarusian air traffic control to Minsk due to a supposed security alert.
O’Leary said Belarusian KGB agents were also on the flight carrying opposition activist Raman Pratasevich, 26, wanted in Belarus on various charges and arrested after the plane landed.
The interception of a commercial flight from one European Union country to another has sparked global condemnation. EU leaders were due to discuss further measures against the government of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko later on Monday.
“It appears that the authorities’ intention was to fire a journalist and his traveling companion, and we believe some KGB agents were also disembarked from the plane,” O’Leary told Newstalk Breakfast radio on Monday.
“When the plane landed, five or six people did not board the plane until it took off, but only one or two people were stopped, which would certainly suggest that a number of the other people who were left the plane were secret service, ”he said, adding that he could not be sure the members were KGB agents.
Shortly 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 the 26-year reign of strongman Lukashenko. Pratasevich is the founder of the Telegram channel Nexta, which helped mobilize anti-Lukashenko protests, and was accused last year “of organizing mass riots and group actions which seriously violate public order. “. He is on a list of people wanted by the government for terrorism.
The couple had flown from Athens, Greece, to Vilnius, Lithuania, when the pilot announced shortly before arriving at their destination that the plane would turn to nearby Minsk.
Pratasevich reacted immediately, rising from his seat, reaching for the top locker, pulling a laptop from his carry-on and passing it to a female companion with her cell phone, witnesses told Reuters.
“When it was announced that they were going to land in Minsk, Roman stood up, opened the luggage compartment, took the luggage and tried to divide things,” said a Lithuanian passenger, who did given its name only as Mantas, Reuters reported.
“I think he made a mistake. There were plenty of people there so he could give things to me or other passengers and not the girlfriend, who I think was also arrested. “
Other passengers said Pratasevich looked scared and said he feared he would be sentenced to death. Marius Rutkauskas was seated behind Pratasevich and told LRT TV, a Lithuanian state-owned company, that passengers were initially told the plane would land in Minsk due to a technical issue.
“A man sat down with his girlfriend and you could see he started to panic. If I understood correctly, it was the journalist. He panicked because we were going to land in Minsk. He said the death penalty awaits him in Belarus, ”said Rutkauskas. .
Likewise, passenger Monika Simkiene told AFP that Pratasevich “just turned to the people and said he was facing the death penalty.”
There are conflicting accounts as to why the plane changed course at the last minute. Ryanair says its crew has been “warned by Belarusian ATC [air traffic control] of a potential threat to on-board safety and were instructed to divert to the nearest airport, Minsk “- even though the plane was closer to Vilnius than to Minsk when it changed course. airport
Meanwhile, the deputy commander of the Belarusian air defense forces, Major General Andrey Gurtsevich, claimed that after the Ryanair crew were informed of a “possible bomb on board”, it was the captain who “had made the decision to land on the reserve airfield (Minsk-2). “
Gurtsevich said a Belarusian Air Force MiG29 aircraft had been dispatched to monitor the flight and “assist” if necessary.
The Belarusian government’s version of events was met with widespread disbelief, despite an elaborate display of fire trucks when the plane landed, as well as extensive baggage checks. Nothing abnormal was found, according to Ryanair.
Pratasevich and Sapega were arrested and detained on their arrival in Minsk. The Sapega student was preparing to defend her master’s thesis in international law and European law at Vilinus, according to the European University of the Humanities (EHU).
“The student was detained by the administration of the Minsk City Investigation Committee under unjustified and invented conditions,” EHU said in a statement.
Upon arrival, Pratasevich’s luggage was checked in and sniffer dogs were deployed, but found nothing, Reuters reported.
“We saw that Roman had been arrested due to some things in the luggage,” passenger Mantas told Reuters, adding that the other passengers had also checked their luggage and were taken by bus to the terminal where they passed. several hours to wait to get back on the plane.
“We saw through the window that Roman was standing alone, and a policeman with a dog was trying to find something (in his luggage). “
Another passenger, who also did not give his name, told Lithuanian media that Protasevich identified himself with Belarusian security officials upon his arrival. “I saw how his passport was taken. He took off his mask and said, “I am so and so and I am the reason this is all happening. “”
Latvia’s national airline airBaltic said on Monday it had “decided to avoid entering Belarusian airspace until the situation is clarified or a decision is issued by the authorities. “.
“The safety and health of our passengers and employees is the airline’s top priority. Currently, airBaltic continues to monitor the situation closely, ”he said.
The incident was condemned by world leaders, with the Lithuanian government calling it on Monday “an act of state terrorism directed against the security of the citizens of the European Union”. The government will demand that Belarus’ airspace be closed to international flights, he said in a statement.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said it was “absolutely unacceptable to force @Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius to land in Minsk”.
“The scandalous and illegal behavior of the regime in Belarus will have consequences. Those responsible for the hijacking of #Ryanair must be punished. Journalist Roman Protasevich must be released immediately, ”von der Leyen said in a subsequent tweet.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken condemned the incident on Sunday and demanded Pratasevich’s release. “This shocking act by the Lukashenka regime endangered the lives of over 120 passengers, including US citizens,” Blinken said in a statement. “The first reports suggesting the involvement of Belarusian security services and the use of Belarusian military planes to escort the aircraft are deeply worrying and require further investigation. “
But Belarus said Western countries were acting “hastily” by making “belligerent” statements about Sunday’s incident. Foreign Ministry spokesman Anatoliy Glaz told Russian state media RIA Novosti that “a number of countries” and the EU were making “deliberately politicized and unsubstantiated accusations” and said that these countries had “no apparent desire to understand it objectively.”
Glaz on Sunday defended Belarus’ actions as “fully justified” to ensure the safety and security of passengers and crew. “There is no doubt that the actions of our competent authorities were also fully in accordance with established international rules,” he said.
Russia, a key Belarus ally, has said it will not comment on the hijacked fight. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said in a conference call with reporters on Monday that it was up to international aviation authorities to determine whether Belarus was in compliance.
CNN’s Tim Lister, Zahra Ullah and Chris Liakos contributed to this report. With additional reports from Reuters.