Ryanair flight

Vilnius-bound Ryanair flight makes emergency landing at Minsk 

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A Ryanair plane carrying scores of passengers from Athens, Greece to Lithuania’s capital Vilnius was diverted to Belarus on Sunday (May 23) under the escort of a MiG-29 fighter jet.

The crew of the Boeing Co. 737-800 was notified by Belarusian authorities of a “potential security threat on board.” Once in Minsk, authorities arrested Roman Pratasevich, 26, a former editor of the Telegram channels Nexta and Nexta Live, which broadcast footage of mass protests against Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko last year.

Protasevich is accused by the Belarusian authorities of organising mass riots and of inciting social hatred, allegations he denies. The mass unrest charges against him carry a sentence of up to 15 years.  He is on a government wanted list for terrorism.

Protasevich had been living in exile and Poland had previously rejected an extradition request sent by Minsk. He had been covering a visit to Athens by Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, a former presidential candidate who is now in exile in Lithuania.

Map Rynair flight
(Athens to Vilnius Flight Diverted Over Belarus)

Belta, the state-owned news agency in Belarus, said Lukashenko had personally given the order for the plane to land in Minsk following the bomb alert, and approved despatching the MiG-29 fighter jet. The Belarusian presidential press service said a bomb threat was received while the plane was over Belarusian territory; officials later said no explosives were found on board.

After seven hours on the ground, the plane took off and finally landed in Vilnius, its original destination.

“We apologise sincerely to all affected passengers for this regrettable delay which was outside Ryanair’s control,” the budget airline said.

Ryanair CEO, Michael O’Leary, in an interview on Newstalk Breakfast said he believed it was the first time such an incident had taken place with a European airline.

The forced landing drew sharp and unified condemnation from across the European Union,
Leaders from the Ireland, Germany, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Poland and the Czech Republic have called for a suspension of all overflights over Belarus.

US also diplomats also weighed in. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg castigated the incident as a dangerous move that required an international investigation.

EU officials due to meet in Brussels for a two-day summit starting Monday will discuss the consequences of what EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen called an “unacceptable” action.

The Belarusian government has set up a commission to investigate the incident with the forced landing of a Vilnius-bound Ryanair flight that took off from Athens, the country’s Ministry of Transport and Communications said on Monday.

The EU accounts for less than 20% of Belarus’ trade; Russia accounts for 49%.

UPDATE 25/05/2021

At a meeting in Brussels, European Union leaders called for Belarusian airlines to be banned from the 27-nation bloc’s airspace, urged EU airlines not to fly over Belarus, and promised further economic sanctions.

Major European airlines have already begun rerouting flights away from Belarusian airspace.

Belarus authorities on Monday released video of Protasevich. In the clip, the journalist said he was in good health and being held in a pretrial detention facility in Minsk. He seemingly confessed to crimes he had been charged with by the Belarusian state. Belarus opposition figures said it was proof he had been tortured.

Russian Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Maria Zakharova told Vesti FM on Tuesday (May 25) that the West’s reactions to Minsk’s forced landing of the Ryanair flight as “hysteria” because “the subject of Belarus is on the agenda.”

UDPATE 26/05/2021

Lukashenko on Wednesday (May 26) in his first remarks since he ordered a warplane to intercept a Ryanair flight between Greece and Lithuania, accused the West of waging a hybrid war against him.

“As we predicted, our ill-wishers from outside the country and from inside the country changed their methods of attack on the state,” Lukashenko who is in power since 1994, told parliament as per Reuters “They have crossed many red lines and have abandoned common sense and human morals.”

Belarus is located between Russia and the EU. Some Russian oil and gas flows through it.

With reporting by Euronews, Belta, AFP, BBC, Reuters