On May 23, a Ryanair flight traveling from Athens to the Lithuanian capital Vilnius was diverted to land in the Belarus capital of Minsk, purportedly due to a bomb threat. Initial reports said the pilots had been told to land at the nearest airport, although flight trackers quickly determined the plane was in fact closer to Vilnius. A Belarusian Air Force MiG-29 fighter was scrambled to "escort" the plane.
The flight landed safely and later continued its journey, albeit without noteworthy passengers. Those included Raman Pratasevich, a journalist and blogger with Nexta, an independent, pro-opposition media outlet, who was taken and arrested.
Belarusian state media told the story quite differently, with the Belta state news agency reporting on May 23 that President Alexander Lukashenko personally ordered the MiG-29 to scramble and trail the plane to Minsk.
“Although the screenshot of the route shows that the plane was almost over the border [of Belarus], Minsk was asked to accept the plane,” Belta reported, citing a Telegram channel. “The situation was immediately reported to the President. Lukashenka gave an unconditional command: turn the plane around and take it. In this situation, the most important thing is the safety and lives of people!"
That version of what happened is full of holes.
First, the Belarus article essentially admits what was quickly determined – that Vilnius, not Minsk, was the closest place for an emergency landing were one truly required.
Second, the article makes no mention of the passengers who failed to reboard. In addition to Pratasevich, another Belarusian citizen and four Russian citizens remained.
One of the Russian citizens was Sofia Sepega, Pratasevich’s girlfriend, also reportedly arrested. Some accounts said that Pratasevich noticed receiving unusual attention from a Russian-speaking individual who tried to take his photo at the airport in Athens.
According to official accounts, Minsk air traffic control informed the Ryanair crew of a bomb threat and instructed them to land at Minsk. The airline in a subsequent statement said nothing was found, as did Belarus officials. According to the Washington Post, Michael O’Leary, CEO of the budget airline Ryanair, called the diversion “a case of state-sponsored hijacking … state-sponsored piracy.”
Pavel Latushka, head of the Belarusian opposition’s National Anti-Crisis Management and a former Belarusian diplomat, tweeted that the pilots may have felt unable to disobey Minsk because of the MiG-29’s presence.
Video by a passenger on the flight shows police and other Minsk airport personnel approaching the plane as passengers casually and slowly disembark rather than evacuate hurriedly. Security agents and dogs then searched through the plane.
On May 24, Belta quoted Belarus Minister of Transport and Communication Artyom Sikorsky as saying that Minsk air-traffic control had received a message from the Palestinian group Hamas claiming that there was a bomb on the plane.
According to Sikorsky, the alleged Hamas message read: “We, soldiers of Hamas, demand that Israel cease fire in the Gaza Strip. We demand that the European Union stop supporting Israel in this war. We know that participants of the Delphi Economic Forum are returning home aboard flight FR4978. A bomb has been planted on the aircraft. If our demands are not met, the bomb will explode over Vilnius on 23 May.”
That seems unlikely given the frantic diplomatic efforts to defuse the Gaza-Israeli conflict at the time. On May 18, the European Union called for an immediate ceasefire for the conflict in Gaza. All member states except Hungary supported the measure. On May 24, Hamas officially denied sending any such threat to Minsk.
Numerous countries have condemned Minsk’s interception of the airliner as an act of “hijacking” and “air piracy.” The U.S. State Department called it a “shocking act” that “endangered the lives of more than 120 passengers, including U.S. citizens.”
On May 24, U.K. Transport Secretary Grant Schapps announced that British flights would be instructed to avoid Belarusian airspace, and that the U.K. operating permit for Belavia, the Belarusian state airline, had been suspended.
Lithuania also announced that flights by its carriers would avoid Belarusian airspace.
Also on May 24, passengers aboard a Lufthansa airliner in Minsk bound for Frankfurt were reportedly disembarked for a second inspection. No reason was given.
The regime of Lukashenko, who has maintained his position as president since 1994, has been increasingly cracking down on protesters and opposition since last August, when opposition groups took to the streets for weeks after a dubious election which saw Lukashenko allegedly win with over 80 percent of the vote. Since then, Lukashenko has been condemned by numerous states.