Belarus was accused of hijacking a commercial airliner forcing it to land in the capital of Minsk after it claimed that there was a bomb on board the aircraft. Security officials then rushed the plane and arrested Roman Protasevich, 26, the former editor and founder of the NEXTA channel on the social media platform Telegram. NEXTA is one of the few remaining sources of independent news inside of Belarus.

No explosives were found on the plane. 

Ryanair flight 4978 had taken off from Athens with 170 passengers on board. It was set to begin its descent into Vilnius, Lithuania. The plane was flying over Belarus airspace when the bomb was reported aboard the plane. It was then that the Belarusian regime ordered the jet to turn to Minsk and scrambled fighter aircraft to escort it to Minsk’s airport. 

Belarusian authorities search in vain for a bomb among passengers’ bags on Ryanair 4978. (AFP photo)

Soviet-style strongman Alexander Lukashenko has cracked down on all opposition voices after a disputed 2020 election. Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya had reportedly won the presidential election. Yet, Lukashenko stopped the tally and claimed to have won 80 percent of the vote which was viewed as fraudulent.

She and many other opposition figures were forced into exile after Lukashenko began arresting hundreds of people who had been protesting the results. 

Roman Protasevich is accused of being a terrorist. This carries the death penalty in Belarus. He was forced to leave the country in 2019 and had been living in Vilnius since. He was visiting Greece for the Delphi Economic Forum along with Tikhanovskaya.

Claims of a Bomb Do Not Hold Up

Ryanair says that its crew was “notified by Belarus air traffic control (ATC) of a potential security threat onboard and were instructed to divert to the nearest airport, Minsk.” MiG 29 fighters then appeared to force the airliner to follow them to Minsk. 

However, Belarusian authorities tell a different story. Major-General Andrey Gurtsevich, the Deputy Commander of the Air Defense Forces, claimed that after the Ryanair crew were told of a “possible bomb on board,” it was the captain who “made a decision to land at the reserve airfield (Minsk-2).” 

Nevertheless, this seems unlikely. Since, if there had actually been a bomb on the aircraft, the captain would have immediately put in for Vilnius which was much closer than Minks.

Video screenshot showing Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko armed with a Kalashnikov-type rifle near the Palace of Independence in Minsk, Belarus, Sunday, August 23, 2020. (State TV and Radio Company of Belarus via AP)

Condemnation Over the Hijacking and Roman Protasevich’s Arrest

Critics of the strong-armed Lukashenko, who is a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin called Sunday’s actions a state-sponsored hijacking. U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken released a statement blasting the move by the Belarusian government. 

“We strongly condemn the Lukashenko regime’s brazen and shocking act to divert a commercial flight and arrest a journalist,” Blinken said. “We demand an international investigation and are coordinating with our partners on next steps. The United States stands with the people of Belarus.”

U.S. Ambassador to Belarus Julie Fisher tweeted, “Lukashenko and his regime today showed again its contempt for international community and its citizens.”

“Faking a bomb threat and sending MiG-29s to force @RyanAir to Minsk in order to arrest a @Nexta journalist on politically motivated charges is dangerous and abhorrent.”

The EU also severely criticized Lukashenko’s move.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen posted on Twitter that it was “utterly unacceptable to force @Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius to land in Minsk.”

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“The outrageous and illegal behavior of the regime in Belarus will have consequences. Those responsible for the #Ryanair hijacking must be sanctioned. Journalist Roman Protasevich must be released immediately,” von der Leyen added in a subsequent Tweet. 

France’s Transport Minister Jean-Baptiste Djebbari also took to Twitter, posting that “hijacking a plane is unacceptable.”

After about seven hours on the ground, Ryanair 4978 was allowed to leave Minsk minus Roman Protasevich, whose friends now fear for his safety.