On June 3, the Belarusian state news agency Belta published a story on a documentary by the state-owned ONT TV channel about the diversion of Ryanair Flight 4978 to Minsk airport on May 23.
The Athens-to-Vilnius flight was compelled to land at Minsk International Airport, where authorities arrested Belarusian opposition journalist Raman Pratasevich and his girlfriend Sofia Sapega, a Russian citizen. After the arrests, the plane was allowed to continue on to its original destination in Lithuania.
While European governments and the airline’s owner condemned the incident as an act of air piracy, the Belarusian government justified the diversion by claiming a bomb threat connected to the Palestinian militant group Hamas had been sent to Minsk airport authorities, who then relayed the information to the flight’s pilots.
An earlier Polygraph.info fact check dealt with claims that Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko had personally ordered that a MiG-29 fighter jet be scrambled to escort the plane, out of concern for the passengers’ “safety.”
The new Belta article attempts to refresh the initial story by omitting any reference to the MiG-29 fighter and the fact that the Ryanair flight was actually closer to Vilnius and had to go out of its way to land in Minsk.
The article claims that negotiations between the pilot and Minsk air traffic control lasted roughly 15 minutes, and quotes the Belarusian air force and air defense commander, Igor Golub:
“During those 14 minutes, the plane almost reached Lida, just over 25km away from the state border, and about 78km from the airport in Vilnius. The Boeing 737 was traveling at a speed of 900 km/h. Simple math: an aircraft covers 15km in one minute, and it would have needed two minutes to cross the state border into the Lithuanian airspace.
“The pilot-in-command however decided to make a turn and head to Minsk. No one forced him to do this, no one gave him such a command. There were only recommendations. He could have decided to keep going and left the Belarusian airspace within two minutes.”
That is false.
The article makes no mention of the MiG-29, a potentially menacing presence, or the fact that the Ryanair flight turned nearly 180 degrees to start its approach to Minsk, to the east. An aviation expert told Germany's international broadcaster Deutsche Welle (DW) that flight tracker information suggests the airliner was forced to make a U-turn.
Rather than starting its descent into Vilnius over Belarusian airspace, as is normal, the expert told DW the Ryanair flight appeared to be trying to reach Lithuanian airspace as soon as possible before finally turning. That contradicts Belarusian government claims that the pilot willingly diverted to Minsk airport.
The new claims include other anomalies.
For example, the purported bomb threat was only emailed to Minsk International Airport, not the flight’s origin or destination. An investigation by Newlines Magazine in cooperation with the Dossier Center found that the email was time-stamped as having been delivered after the pilot was told about the alleged bomb and the aircraft diverted to Minsk.
Moreover, the text of the email demanded a ceasefire in Gaza, even though a truce already had been called several days earlier. The email's author was found to be Azerbaijani and Jewish. Hamas officially denied any connection with the message.
The Belarusian state TV documentary reportedly tried to suggest that the diversion had nothing to do with Pratasevich being on the plane.
“The authors of the film emphasize that no one in Belarus knew or could know this information,” the Belta article explains. “Only three parties have access to passenger manifests: the airports of departure and arrival, and the airline.”
But Pratasevich had reported being approached by an unknown Russian-speaking man in Athens airport who tried to photograph him. According to Tadeusz Giczan, who is part of Pratasevich’s Nexta media outlet, Russian-speaking men presumed to be Belarusian security operatives initiated an altercation with the flight crew, claiming there was a bomb on the plane.
This account was supported by a Lithuanian airport spokesperson, who said Vilnius air traffic controllers were told by their counterparts in Minsk that the flight had been diverted due to an altercation involving the flight crew and several passengers.
On June 3, Pratasevich appeared in an interview on Belarusian state television showing obvious signs of duress and claiming responsibility for organizing mass riots against the Lukashenko regime. Viewers noted that Pratasevich had visible wounds on his wrists.
Pratasevich, 26, is a Belarusian opposition journalist and activist who moved to Poland in 2019 and the following year founded the opposition channel Nexta on the messaging app Telegram. Nexta played a crucial role in spreading news and information about protests in the wake of Lukashenko’s disputed electoral victory in August 2020.
Pratasevich has been charged by the Belarusian authorities with “organizing mass riots,” “organization or active participation in group actions that severely violate public order” and “incitement of racial, ethnic, religious, or other social enmity.”
The Belarusian authorities claim Pratasevich’s girlfriend Sapega also broke Belarusian laws, although they have not specified which.