Belarus ‘pressured hijacked Ryanair captain to say Minsk landing was voluntary’

·4 min read
A security guard checks the luggage of passengers on the 'hijacked' Ryanair plane in Minsk - AP
A security guard checks the luggage of passengers on the 'hijacked' Ryanair plane in Minsk - AP

The captain and crew of the Ryanair passenger jet "hijacked" by the Belarus regime were pressured to confess on camera that they voluntarily diverted to Minsk, the airline’s boss Michael O'Leary has revealed.

Mr O'Leary said a number of unidentified people boarded the aircraft carrying video cameras after the plane was intercepted and forced to land in the Belarus capital under the pretext of a fictitious bomb threat.

He told MPs on the transport committee on Tuesday that they "repeatedly attempted to get the crew to confirm on video that they had voluntarily diverted to Minsk" but the captain and his team refused to do so.

The diversion of the jet en route to Vilnius in Lithuania resulted in passengers Roman Protasevich, the opposition journalist, and his girlfriend Sofia Sapega being seized by the Belarus authorities. They have since appeared giving televised “confessions” that supporters fear were extracted under duress.

Belarusian journalist Roman Protasevich confesses to organising riots during an interview on state-run television - ONT
Belarusian journalist Roman Protasevich confesses to organising riots during an interview on state-run television - ONT

Describing it as a “premeditated breach of international aviation rules” by Belarus, Mr O’Leary said that after landing the passengers and crew were taken to a terminal building under armed guard and held "for a number of hours.”

"The captain was left on board, but every time he left the cockpit to examine either the engines or do a walk around, he was accompanied by an armed guard,” he said. “So it was a very threatening and hostile environment. We eventually got the aircraft back out of Minsk after about eight hours."

The plane left Belarus without Mr Protasevich, Ms Sapega, two Belarusian citizens and a Greek computer scientist.

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Mr O’Leary suggested the Belarusians could have been agents from the Russian or Belarus KGB but each said they had asked to disembark as they were transiting to Minsk anyway in interviews on Belarusian TV.

The Ryanair boss was giving evidence to a special session of the Transport Select Committee into the flight, FR4978, which was flying from Greece to Lithuania on May 23 but was forced to change by Minsk air traffic control to head for Minsk escorted by a MiG fighter jet.

Mr O’Leary said the crew were told by Minsk air traffic control (ATC) that they had received "a credible threat that if the aircraft entered Lithuanian air space, or attempted to land at Vilnius airport, that a bomb on board would be detonated".

He said the captain "repeatedly" asked Minsk ATC to provide an open line of communication back to Ryanair's operations control centre in Warsaw, but was told: "Ryanair weren't answering the phone", which was "completely untrue".

Mr O'Leary said diverted Ryanair flights in that location would normally land in Poland and the other Baltic states, but the captain was put under "considerable pressure" to land in Minsk. "He wasn't instructed to do so, but he wasn't left with any great alternatives," he told the committee.

He told the committee that he was not in favour of the ban on UK and EU airlines flying over Belarus, or Belarusian airline Belavia from operating in the UK or EU, remaining in the long term.

He said: "We cannot have a situation whereby airlines, air travel, our customers and our citizens run the risk of being hijacked and diverted under false pretences.

“But equally, far more UK citizens will be disrupted as a result of long haul flights between the UK and Asia for example now having to fly around Belarus or avoiding Belarusian airspace. This is not in our long-term interests as an industry or in our passengers' best interests.

"We need to have an outcome where the European and the UK authorities, hopefully assisted by international partners, receive appropriate assurances from the Belarusian and/or Russian authorities that this will never happen again.

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