Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary accused Belarus of “state-sponsored piracy” after control of Belarusian air traffic in Minsk diverted flight 4978 from Athens to Vilnius for an alleged security alert.
O’Leary said Belarusian KGB agents were also on the flight carrying 26-year-old opposition activist Raman Pratasevich, who is wanted in Belarus on various charges and was arrested after the plane landed.
The interception of a commercial flight from one European Union nation to another provoked a worldwide condemnation. EU leaders were due to discuss further actions against the government of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko later Monday.
“It appears the authorities’ intention was to dismiss a journalist and his traveling companion, and we believe there were also some KGB agents unloaded from the plane,” O’Leary told Newstalk Breakfast radio on Monday.
Similarly, Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney said Secret Service agents could have been on the plane and told RTE’s Morning Ireland program on Monday that the agents were “clearly linked to the regime Belarusian “.
“When the plane landed, five or six people didn’t get back on the plane before it took off again, but only one or two people were actually arrested, so I would certainly suggest that some of the other people who left the plane were on secret service, ”he said, adding that he could not be sure the members were KGB agents.
Stories of eyewitnesses
Shortly after landing the plane, 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 powerful 26-year-old Lukashenko government. Pratasevich is the founder of the Telegram Nexta channel, which helped mobilize anti-Lukashenko protests, and was accused last year of “organizing mass riots and group actions that seriously violate public order.” He is on a list of terrorists wanted by the government.
The couple had flown from Athens, Greece, to Vilnius, Lithuania, when the pilot announced shortly before reaching his destination that the plane would be diverted to nearby Minsk.
Pratasevich reacted immediately, getting up from the seat, reaching for the locker, taking a laptop out of his hand luggage and handing it to a companion along with his mobile phone, witnesses told Reuters.
“When it was announced that they were going to land in Minsk, Roman got up, opened the luggage compartment, grabbed luggage and was trying to split things up,” said a Lithuanian passenger, who gave his name only as Blankets, Reuters reported.
“I think he made a mistake. There were a lot of people so he could give things to me or other passengers and not the girlfriend, who was also arrested.”
Other passengers said Pratasevich looked frightened and said he feared facing the death penalty. Marius Rutkauskas was sitting behind Pratasevich and told state television LRT Lithuania that passengers were initially told the plane would land in Minsk due to a technical failure.
“A man sat down with his girlfriend and it was seen that he started to panic. As I understood it, this was the journalist. He panicked because we would land in Minsk. He said the death penalty awaits him. in Belarus, ”Rutkauskas said. .
Similarly, passenger Monika Simkiene told AFP that Pratasevich “only addressed people and said she was facing the death penalty.”
There are conflicting reports as to why the plane changed course at the last minute. Ryanair says its crew was “notified by the ATC of Belarus [air traffic control] of a potential security threat on board and were instructed to divert to the nearest airport, Minsk, ”although the plane was closer to Vilnius than Minsk when it changed course.
Meanwhile, the Deputy Commander of the Belarussian Air Defense Forces, Major General Andrey Gurtsevich, stated that after Ryanair’s crew was notified of a “possible bomb on board”, it was the captain who “made the decision”. to land at the reserve airfield (Minsk-2). ”
Gurtsevich said a Belarus Air Force MiG29 plane was sent to monitor the flight and “help” if necessary.
The Belarusian government’s version of events has had widespread disbelief, despite an elaborate demonstration of fire trucks when the plane landed, as well as extensive baggage control. According to Ryanair, nothing inappropriate was found.
Pratasevich and Sapega were arrested and detained on arrival in Minsk. The student Sapega was preparing to defend his master’s thesis in International Law and European Law in Vilinus, according to the European University of Humanities (University of the Basque Country).
“The student was detained by the Administration of the Minsk City Research Committee in unfounded and invented conditions,” the University said in a statement.
Upon arrival, Pratasevich’s luggage was checked and tracking dogs were deployed, but nothing appeared, Reuters reported.
“We saw that Roman was stopped because of some things they had in their luggage,” Mantas told the Reuters passenger, who added that the other passengers had also checked in their luggage and were taken by bus to the terminal, where they spent several hours waiting to get back on the plane.
“We saw out the window that Roman was alone and a police officer 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 had identified himself with Belarusian security officers on arrival. “I saw his passport taken away. He took off his mask and said, ‘I’m a so-and-so and that’s why all this is happening.'”
On Monday, Latvia’s flag carrier airBaltic said it had “decided to prevent entry into Belarusian airspace until the situation becomes clearer or a decision by the authorities is issued.”
“The safety and health of our passengers and employees is the airline’s top priority. Currently, AirBaltic continues to closely monitor the situation,” he said.
The incident has been condemned by world leaders, and the Lithuanian government described it on Monday as an “act of state terrorism aimed at the security of the citizens of the European Union”. The government will ask that Belarus airspace be closed to international flights, it said in a statement.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said it was “totally unacceptable to force @ Ryanair’s flight from Athens to Vilnius to land in Minsk.”
“The regime’s outrageous and illegal behavior in Belarus will have consequences. Those responsible for the kidnapping of #Ryanair must be punished. Journalist Roman Protasevich must be released immediately,” von der Leyen said in a subsequent tweet.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken condemned the incident Sunday and demanded Pratasevich’s release. “This shocking act perpetrated by the Lukashenka regime endangered the lives of more than 120 passengers, including U.S. citizens,” Blinken said in a statement. “Early reports suggesting the involvement of Belarusian security services and the use of Belarusian military aircraft to escort the plane are deeply worrying and require a thorough investigation.”
But Belarus has said Western countries are acting “in a hurry” by making “belligerent” statements about Sunday’s incident. Foreign Ministry Press Secretary Anatoliy Glaz told Russian media RIA Novosti that a “number of countries” and the EU presented “deliberately politicized and unsupported accusations” and said that these nations “do not they have no apparent desire to understand it objectively. ”
Glaz defended Belarus’ actions on Sunday as “fully justified” in order to ensure the safety of passengers and crew. “There is no doubt that the actions of our competent authorities also fully complied with established international standards,” he said.
Russia, a key ally of Belarus, said it would not comment on the deflected fighting. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Monday in a conference call with reporters that it was up to international aviation authorities to determine whether Belarus complies with the regulations.
CNN’s Tim Lister, Zahra Ullah and Chris Liakos contributed to this report. With additional Reuters reports.
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