Belarus threatened to shoot down a packed Ryanair passenger jet carrying an exiled opposition activist.
The Eastern European country’s regime has been accused of “hijacking” the Ryanair flight and forcing it to make an emergency landing in Minsk over a fake bomb threat so that police can arrest dissident blogger Roman Protasevich.
Michael O’Leary, CEO of the Dublin-based airline, claimed the forced landing was a “state sponsored kidnapping” and that “KGB agents” were on the plane.
Chilling alleges that a Belarusian MiG-29 fighter plane that was escorting the Ryanair plane was given permission to open fire and suspicions of the role of up to four mysterious Russians aboard the plane arose.
These passengers voluntarily disembarked from Ryanair’s Minsk flight and did not get back on as they resumed their journey to Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital.
Their presence has raised fears that Russian intelligence agencies may be involved in a somber operation to arrest 26-year-old Roman Protasevich, who was imprisoned with his 23-year-old girlfriend Sofia Sapega.
The pretext for forcing the plane to land on Sunday was a bombing hazard, but no explosives were found and Belarus was accused of staging a hoax to arrest the government critic.
Ryanair chief O’Leary told Newstalk Radio on Monday morning: “This was a case of government sponsored kidnapping … government sponsored piracy.
“It appears that the authorities’ intention was to remove a journalist and his travel companion … we believe that some KGB agents were also unloaded at the airport.”
Ireland believes several members of the security service have got off the plane, Foreign Secretary Simon Coveney said.
He said, “Five or six people effectively got off the plane.
“Only one of them was arrested, which would suggest the others were intelligence agents.”
Mr. Coveney called for an independent and international investigation into the incident.
He also said he supported the idea of closing Belarusian airspace.
Belarus, condemned by the UK and other western countries, said it was ready to visit experts if necessary to investigate the diversion and show them data.
Foreign Minister Dominic Raab said Britain was working with allies on a response to Belarus, including “further sanctions”.
He said: “Great Britain condemns the actions of the Belarusian authorities yesterday in arresting journalist Roman Protasevich on a ruse after he forced his escape to land in Minsk.”
Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko “must be held accountable for his unusual actions,” said Raab.
He added: “The UK calls for the immediate release of Mr Protasevich and other political prisoners held in Belarus.
“Britain is working with our allies on a coordinated response, including further sanctions.”
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He also urged the Council of the International Civil Aviation Organization to meet urgently “to examine whether the regime is violating international regulations on the protection of civil aviation”.
Mr O’Leary said there was not much he could say about the incident “because the EU authorities and NATO are currently dealing with it”.
He added: “We are discussing the crews, our crews did a phenomenal job of getting the plane and almost all passengers out of Minsk after six hours.”
“Today we have to hold a detailed debriefing with NATO and the EU authorities.
“I find it very frightening for the crew to have their bags searched for the passengers who were being held under armed guard.”
Mr Protasevich asked the crew not to obey the order to land in Minsk, the Belarusian capital, and told them that “they will kill me”.
On the ground he told his fellow travelers that he could expect the “death penalty”.
He is a prolific journalist against Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko and has been wanted on allegations of rigged election for his role in promoting mass protests against the dictator last year.
The plane with 123 passengers from Athens was significantly closer to Vilnius than Minsk.
Opposition leader Pavel Latushko said: “The air traffic controllers at Minsk-2 airport threatened to shoot passengers on board the civilian Ryanair plane.
“For this reason, a MiG-29 military fighter was sent to the Belarusian Air Force. This proves again that this incident was an act of state terrorism.
“It requires an immediate response from the European authorities and the global community as a whole.”
Mr Latushko heads the National Anti-Crisis Management, a shadow government set up last year by the Belarusian Coordinating Council for the peaceful transfer of power after the 2020 elections, which is widely viewed by Mr Lukashenko as stolen.
Mr Latushko is a former Belarusian minister of culture and was the country’s ambassador to France, Spain and Portugal before joining the opposition.
The allegation of the shooting was received through the Belarusian Civil Aviation Authority, he said.
It was endorsed by Vadim Lukashevich, a Moscow-based aviation expert, who said: “To make it clear, the pilots of the Ryanair plane that was forced to land in Belarus headed for the destination Vilnius until the last possible moment .
“They had to turn back under the threat of a fighter plane when the distance to Vilnius Airport was only 10 minutes and the Lithuanian border was only 30 km away.”
He claimed the Ryanair pilots were “on their way to Lithuania without slowing down … they escaped the fighter jet and returned just two minutes before crossing the Lithuanian border.”
Airborne radar data showed that the aircraft had not descended more slowly to normal altitude on this route, but appeared to be flying to the border as quickly as possible before apparently returning abruptly at the orders of the MiG-29.
Mr. Lukashevich said he was convinced that “the fighter had permission to shoot”.
He added: “And I am absolutely certain that the passenger plane’s crew did not turn around until after the Belarusian fighter received a notification that in case of disobedience they would open fire before the passenger plane left Belarus airspace. “
Such an order could only be issued by the Belarusian President.
Meanwhile, leading Russian investigative journalist Roman Dobrokhotov announced that four Russian passengers who were on the flight disembarked in Minsk.
He claimed: “Four Russian citizens did not continue the flight to Vilnius. This operation was accompanied by Russian special services. “
One of Russia’s most respected independent journalists, Alexey Venediktov, editor-in-chief of Echo Moscow radio, said: “Four other Russians did not follow Vilnius, but left the plane in Minsk and dissolved into nature.”
A passenger named Raselle, a beautician, posted a message on social media claiming that Mr Protasevich had said to a flight attendant, “Don’t do this, they will kill me.” I am a refugee. “
She said, “He [the flight attendant] replied: “We have to, we have no choice, it is in the legal agreements of Ryanair.”
One passenger on the plane said that Mr. Protasevich looked “super scared”.
“I looked him straight in the eye and he was very sad,” she said.
Ms. Sapega, Mr. Protasevich’s friend, is a student at the European University of Humanities, which is based in Vilnius after being forced to close by the Minsk authorities.
She is a Russian citizen and the university where she studies international law has expressed deep concern about her fate.
Political prisoners in Belarus were tortured, opposition officials claimed.
Aircraft of the regional airline Air Baltic have already begun to bypass Belarusian airspace.
Lithuania – a former Soviet state in the EU and NATO – has led Western calls for action against its neighbor Belarus.
“It is an unprecedented attack on the international community: a civil aircraft and its passengers have been hijacked by military forces, and a Belarusian citizen whose life and health are in danger has been kidnapped,” a government statement said.
“It is unjustifiable that ordinary international travelers have been held hostage to the regime’s aggression.
“This is the act of state terrorism against the safety of citizens of the European Union and other countries, Belarusian civil society seeking asylum from persecution by the regime, and international civil aviation.
“Lithuania will demand a clear and uncompromising response from the international community.”
Lithuania said “Belarusian airspace is unsafe for everyone”.
A statement added: “The EU must take effective measures to protect all persons, regardless of their nationality, who are at risk from inadequate action by the regime.
“Together with international partners, we will work on closing Belarusian airspace to international flights.
“What happened is not just an attack on Lithuania. It is a signal for the entire European Union and international organizations. “