Update: Belarus spins Ruse plane as dictator Lukashenka’s heroic move
On May 23, a Ryanair flight traveling from Athens to the Lithuanian capital Vilnius was diverted to land in the Belarusian capital of Minsk, allegedly due to a bomb threat. Early reports indicated that the pilots were ordered to land at the nearest airport, although flight followers quickly determined that 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 then continued on its journey, but without notable passengers. Among them was Raman Pratasevich, journalist and blogger at Nexta, an independent and pro-opposition media outlet, who was taken away and arrested.
Belarusian state media told the story quite differently, with Belta state news agency reporting on May 23 that President Aleksandr Lukashenka personally ordered the MiG-29 to rush in and follow the plane. to Minsk.
“Although the route screenshot shows the plane was almost over the border [of Belarus], Minsk was invited to accept the plane, ”Belta reported, citing a Telegram channel. “The situation was immediately reported to the president. Lukashenka gave an unconditional order: turn the plane over and take it. In this situation, the most important is the safety and the life of the people! “
This version of what happened is full of holes.
First, the Belarusian article essentially admits what was quickly determined – that Vilnius, not Minsk, was the closest place for an emergency landing was really needed.
Second, the article makes no mention of passengers who did not re-board. In addition to Pratasevich, another Belarusian citizen and four Russian citizens remained.
One of the Russian citizens was Sofia Sepega, the girlfriend of Pratasevich, who was also reportedly arrested. According to some accounts, Pratasevich noticed unusual attention from a Russian-speaking individual who attempted to take his photo at Athens airport.
According to official accounts, Minsk air traffic control informed the Ryanair crew of the bomb threat and ordered them to land in Minsk. The airline in a subsequent statement said nothing was found, as were Belarusian officials. According to the Washington Post, Michael O’Leary, CEO of low-cost airline Ryanair, called the hijacking “a case of state hijacking … state hacking.”
Pavel Latushka, head of Belarusian opposition national anti-crisis management and former Belarusian diplomat, tweeted that the pilots may have felt unable to disobey in Minsk due to the presence of the MiG-29.
Video of a passenger on the flight shows police and other Minsk airport staff approaching the plane as passengers disembark slowly and slowly rather than hastily evacuating. Security guards and dogs then searched the plane.
On May 24, Belta quoted Belarusian Transport and Communications Minister 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 Hamas soldiers demand that Israel cease fire in the Gaza Strip. We demand that the European Union stop supporting Israel in this war. We know that Delphi Economic Forum attendees are returning home on flight FR4978. A bomb was planted on the plane. If our demands are not met, the bomb will explode over Vilnius on May 23. “
This seems unlikely given the frantic diplomatic efforts to defuse the Gaza-Israel 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.
Update: On May 24, Hamas officially denied sending such a threat to Minsk.
Many countries condemned Minsk’s interception of the airliner as an act of “hijacking” and “air piracy”. The US State Department called it a “shocking act” that “endangered the lives of over 120 passengers, including US citizens.”
On May 24, British Transport Secretary Grant Schapps announced that British flights would be tasked with avoiding Belarusian airspace and that the British operating license for Belavia, the Belarusian national airline, had been suspended.
Lithuania also announced that its carriers’ flights 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 Lukashenka regime, which has maintained its position as president since 1994, has increasingly cracked down on protesters and the opposition since last August, when opposition groups took to the streets for weeks after a questionable election reportedly said saw Lukashenka win with more than 80%. of the vote. Since then, Lukashenka has been condemned by many states.