Belarussian spies were onboard commercial airliner diverted by force to Minsk
BELARUSSIAN INTELLIGENCE OFFICERS were allegedly onboard a commercial airliner that was en route to Lithuania, but was forcibly diverted to Minsk on Sunday, where a vocal Belarussian dissident was arrested. The dissident is 26-year-old Roman Protasevich, who is known as one of the most outspoken opponents of Belarus’ authoritarian President, Alexander Lukashenko.
Protasevich has been voicing his criticism of Lukashenko’s government on popular social-media outlets, such as Telegram. He has evaded charges of terrorism and incitement to violence in his home country by living in Poland, where he applied for political asylum in 2019. On Sunday, May 23, Protasevich was among the 171 passengers onboard Ryanair flight FR4978 from Athens, Greece, to Vilnius, Lithuania. However, while flying over Belarussian airspace en route to Vilnius, the commercial airliner was confronted by a Belarussian Air Force MiG-29 fighter jet, while the pilots were told by Belarussian ground control that a bomb threat had been issued against the plane.
The airplane was forcibly redirected to Minsk, despite the fact that there were several international airports that were physically closer. As soon as the aircraft landed, officers of the Belarussian State Security Committee, known as the KGB, boarded the plane and apprehended Protasevich. He is now under arrest in Minsk. It later surfaced that President Lukashenko had personally given instructions to the MiG-29 to prevent the Ryanair airplane from exiting Belarussian airspace.
Speaking on the breakfast show of Newstalk, an independent radio station in the Republic of Ireland, Ryanair Chief Executive Officer Michael O’Leary described Sunday’s incident as “a case of state-sponsored hijacking”. He added that according to Ryanair personnel onboard the aircraft, who witnessed the incident, Belarussian KGB officers were “onboard the plane when it took off from Athens” and participated in forcibly arresting Protasevich once the airplane had landed in Minsk.
Protasevich appeared on a video issued by the Belarussian authorities late on Sunday. He is reportedly facing 12 years in prison if convicted of inciting riots. However, he faces the death penalty if convicted of acts of terrorism.