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Global scandal: Belarus intercepts an international flight and arrested a passenger

Former editor-in-chief of the telegram channel Nexta, which covered the protests in Belarus, Roman Protasevich, was detained in Minsk. He was taken off the plane, which was flying from Athens to Vilnius and urgently landed in Minsk after the message about "mining", writes Air force.

Intercepted flight after liberation and landing in Vilnius. Photo: Shutterstock

“Roman Protasevich was detained. He flew on a Ryanair flight Athens-Vilnius, ”the human rights center“ Viasna ”said on Sunday, May 23.

Many European leaders, politicians and diplomats demanded the immediate release of the plane and passengers, as well as an international investigation into the incident.

The Greek Foreign Ministry called the forced landing of the plane that took off from Athens an act of state aviation piracy, and the Prime Minister of Poland called for a ban on flights of Belarusian airlines over the territory of the European Union.

The consequences of the Ryanair incident and possible sanctions against the Belarusian authorities will be discussed at the EU summit on Monday 24 May.

Aviation security experts said the interception of a passenger liner and its forced landing in order to arrest one of the passengers is unprecedented.

The Main Directorate for Combating Organized Crime of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Belarus in its telegram channel confirmed the arrest of Protasevich at the Minsk airport.

Earlier, the press service of the National Airport “Minsk” stated that the Ryanair plane flying from Athens to Vilnius was urgently landed in Minsk due to a message about mining. Later they clarified that the information about the mining was not confirmed, however, investigative actions were carried out with the plane and everyone on board.

The Belarusian edition Onliner notes that the passengers had to leave the plane and go through a second inspection.

Ryanair, operating the flight, said the Belarusian air traffic control service informed the crew about the threat on board the aircraft. Ryanair notified the relevant national and European aviation security agencies of this regrettable delay caused by circumstances beyond the airline's control, the airline said in a statement.

“During the inspection, nothing reprehensible was revealed, and the local authorities gave the plane and passengers permission to take off after about five hours in Minsk,” the airline said.

At about 21:30 Moscow time, the Ryanair flight landed in Vilnius.

Lithuanian law enforcement agencies are conducting a survey of passengers in order to understand what exactly happened on board. As reported by the Delfi agency, the General Prosecutor's Office of Lithuania has launched an investigation into the hijacking of the plane and the treatment of people prohibited by international law.

According to the publication "Mogilev Online", Protasevich managed to report that back in Athens he noticed an interest in himself from a Russian-speaking middle-aged man. First, he tried to film Protasevich's documents, and then turned around and left, although he was next in line to check the documents.

“It is quite obvious that this is an operation of the special services to hijack an airplane with the aim of detaining an activist and blogger Roman Protasevich,” said one of the leaders of the Belarusian opposition Svetlana Tikhanovskaya.

Later, the Austrian newspaper Der Standart reported with reference to Franak Vechorka, an adviser to Tihanovskaya, that in addition to Protasevich, another Russian woman was detained in Minsk. As Vechorka explained to the BBC, we can talk about Sophia Sapega, Protasevich's girlfriend.

Sapega, 23, is a Russian citizen. At the moment, she is studying for a master's degree at the European Humanities University (EHU) in Vilnius under the program “International Law and European Union Law,” YSU spokesman Maxim Milta told the BBC.

He also confirmed that she was detained in Minsk. After the arrest, she did not get in touch, he added.

“The European Humanities University is making every effort to secure the early release of Sofia Sapega,” Milta said.

Sapega was born in Russia (on her pages on social networks it is indicated that her hometown is Vladivostok - BBC comment), but has lived almost all her life in Belarus, her classmate told the BBC, who asked for anonymity.

According to him, Sapega had a temporary residence permit in Lithuania, since she entered the private Lithuanian university of YSU and this year she had to complete her master's degree there. Sapega met Protasevich about six months ago, her classmate said.

“I was not interested in politics, but worried about the fate of my native countries - Belarus and Russia. I am sure that Sofa's detention has only one reason - to put pressure on Roman. Since there are objectively no other reasons, ”he suggested. According to him, she is not an activist.

 

"At the direction of the head of state"

Flight FR4978's deviation from its intended route was recorded on the Flightradar124 website, which shows the plane turning southeast towards Minsk shortly before reaching the Lithuanian border.

The Pul Pervy telegram channel, which is close to the presidential administration of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko, reported that the situation with the plane was under the control of the head of state.

According to the report, on the instructions of the commander-in-chief, a fighter was raised to escort the passenger plane. Later this message was removed from the site.

The Ministry of Defense of Belarus said that after receiving information about the presence of an aircraft with possible mining in the country's airspace, the air defense forces on duty were alerted number one, and the aircraft, on board of which more than 120 passengers (according to other sources, 171), went to the airport Minsk was accompanied by a MiG-29 fighter.

Later, the Investigative Committee of Belarus announced the initiation of a criminal case on the fact of a false report about the mining of an aircraft.

An unprecedented case

Although reports of the mining of passenger airliners are not uncommon, as is the rise in the air of fighters to escort aircraft in case of suspicion of their capture, experts call the case of the forced landing of a Ryanair flight unique.

Russian aviation expert Vadim Lukashevich draws attention to the fact that flight FR4978 was forced to turn back under the threat of a fighter jet, when only 10 minutes of flight remained to Vilnius airport (73 km), and only 30 km to the Lithuanian border.

Based on Flightradar data, the expert points out that the pilots of previous flights always began to descend from the cruising level 177 kilometers to Vilnius, but this time the pilots went towards Lithuania without reducing and slowing down and turned back just two minutes before crossing the Lithuanian border. According to Lukashevich, this means that the pilots were actually leaving the pursuing fighter.

“I am absolutely sure that the crew of the passenger airliner turned around only after receiving a notification from the Belarusian fighter that in case of disobedience it would open fire before the passenger plane left the airspace of Belarus,” the expert wrote on his Facebook page.

On the subject: US bans entry to 43 Belarusian citizens supporting Lukashenka's regime

First class pilot, acting pilot of Aeroflot, Andrei Litvinov, called the incident with flight FR4978 savagery.

“If a bomb is planted on board, then the decision at which airport to urgently land is taken by the pilot of the aircraft based on weather conditions, whether this airport is suitable for landing this type of aircraft, and whether the landing strip is available for landing. It doesn't matter which country he is flying over - he chooses an airport based on these and other parameters, ”the pilot said in an interview with the BBC Russian Service.

“Once again - the decision is made by the commander, he does not need fighters to help him. He also cannot be ordered to sit at one or another airport, this is entirely the commander's decision, ”added Andrei Litvinov.

As Andrei Litvinov explains, the pilot receives a message about a bomb on board either through the dispatcher, with whom the FSB contacts, or through a telegram from the Mission Control Center. According to him, lifting a fighter into the air means intercepting an aircraft, and such a measure is applied in exceptional cases.

“I had a case when a drunken rowdy on board said that he was a terrorist. In such situations, the pilot reports the seizure of the ship to the ground, and then the fighters are sent to the aircraft to prevent a major tragedy: for example, if a terrorist forces the pilot to direct the aircraft to residential objects. They are needed to shoot down the plane in the air if the situation finally gets out of control and the pilot refuses to land. I was accompanied by two fighters to land, and this is a huge stress for both the pilot and the passengers, ”the pilot said.

According to Gleb Bogush, Associate Professor of the Department of International Law at the Higher School of Economics, according to the Chicago Convention on International Civil Aviation, any interception of an aircraft and its landing is possible only if there are grounds and under no circumstances should the life and health of passengers be endangered.

In the event of a threat, the state in whose airspace the aircraft is located has the right to intercept it and force it to land. Nothing, in principle, prohibits the raising of fighters into the air to accompany such an aircraft for security purposes, the expert argues. However, he adds, the version of the threat does not explain why the dispatchers sent the plane with a significant deviation from the course to Minsk, and did not land it at the nearest airport in Vilnius, where the plane was already heading.

“According to the annex to the convention, the purpose of the interception is to identify the plane, correct the route or prevent a real threat,” Gleb Bogush told the BBC. "So, further actions after landing under the convention were only possible to prevent such a threat."

“Undoubtedly, the Belarusian authorities violated international law,” the expert summed up.

What are the Belarusian authorities accusing Protasevich of?

25-year-old Roman Protasevich is the host of the channel in the NEXTA project (read as “nekhta”, which means “someone” in Belarusian), which was founded in 2015 by Stepan Putilo, then a schoolboy and friend of Roman.

After the presidential elections, which, according to official data, were won by Alexander Lukashenko, Nexta became the main source of information about the protests unfolding in the country, and more recently, their coordinator.

In August last year, Protasevich said in an interview with the BBC Russian Service that he was forced to flee to Poland due to persecution by the Belarusian special services. Stepan Putilo did this earlier.

“From four to six criminal cases have been opened against me and Stepan, with a total term of imprisonment of up to 25 years,” Protasevich said at the time. - There are articles "disclosure of state secrets", "insult to the president", "incitement to mass riots" and so on. How many things are real, we have no idea. "

When asked if he was afraid that the Belarusian special services would get to him in Poland, Protasevich replied that he was in the process of obtaining refugee status, and they would not be able to deport him to Belarus. But he admitted that he periodically changes addresses, phone numbers and tries not to walk around at night.

In November 2020, the KGB of Belarus included Protasevich, along with another creator of Next, Stepan Putilo, on the list of terrorists.

In addition, the Belarusian Investigative Committee opened criminal cases against Putilo and Protasevich under articles on organizing mass riots in Minsk and inciting social hostility towards representatives of the authorities and the police. These articles imply a punishment of up to 15 and 12 years in prison, respectively.

The Nexta Telegram channel and its logo were recognized as extremist materials on the territory of Belarus.

The channel Belarus of the Brain, which is currently headed by Protasevich, was also recognized as extremist.

On the subject: Ex-security official from Belarus claims Lukashenka's involvement in the murder of a Ukrainian journalist

How the West will respond to the interception of Ryanair flight in Minsk

After seven hours at the Minsk airport, the flight departed for Vilnius - without six passengers, writes Air force... At the airport he was met by the Prime Minister of Lithuania Ingrida Simonyte.

“This unprecedented situation requires a thorough investigation,” she said.

Ryanair said in a statement that the crew was notified by Belarus of the potential threat on board and instructed to head to Minsk. Ryanair CEO Michael O'Leary said in an interview with Irish radio Newstalk that the interception of his company's passenger plane by the Belarusian authorities was an act of state piracy.

“Apparently, the intention of the authorities was to remove the journalist and his companion from the plane ... We believe that several [Belarusian] KGB agents also got off the plane,” said Ryanair's executive director.

 

The forced landing caused a sharp and unanimous condemnation of the entire European Union, including Germany, France, Poland and Greece, from where the plane took off, Bloomberg said. According to him, further sanctions against Minsk may follow.

US Ambassador to Belarus Julie Fischer tweeted how disgusting that Lukashenka falsified the bomb threat and ordered the combat aircraft to take off, all in order to arrest an opposition journalist.

 

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki described the actions of the Belarusian authorities as an act of state terrorism.

“I condemn in the strongest terms the detention of Roman Protasevich by the Belarusian authorities after the hijacking of a Ryanair passenger plane. This is a reprehensible act of state terrorism, ”he wrote on his Twitter.

Moravetski also supported the initiative of the Lithuanian President to discuss the incident at the EU summit and has already addressed the President of the European Council with a proposal to discuss the imposition of immediate sanctions against Belarus.

European Council President Charles Michel said that on Monday, May 24, at the summit, EU leaders will discuss this unprecedented case and will not leave it without consequences.

The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) has expressed concern about the forced landing of Ryanair's flight, which it believes may be in violation of the Chicago Convention, which sets out the basic principles for the operation of international aviation. The organization said it expects official information about the incident from the states and services involved in the incident.

Charge d'Affaires of Belarus in Warsaw was summoned to the Polish Foreign Ministry for an explanation. The Lithuanian Foreign Ministry summoned the Charge d'Affaires of Belarus with a demand to immediately release the passengers and the crew of the Ryanair plane that landed in Minsk.

Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda called on NATO and EU allies to immediately respond to the threat that the Belarusian regime poses to international civil aviation.

The General Prosecutor's Office of Lithuania, in turn, announced the start of a pre-trial investigation into the hijacking of an aircraft for terrorist purposes and the treatment of people prohibited by international law, said the representative of the Lithuanian prosecutor's office Elyana Martinonene.

Tom Tugendhatt, Chairman of the Special Committee on Foreign Affairs of the House of Commons of the British Parliament, stressed that the forcible landing of the plane in order to drown out the voices of the opposition is an attack on democracy.

“Greece strongly condemns the act of state aviation piracy, which took place today and led to the forced landing of Ryanair FR 4978, which operated on the Athens-Vilnius flight, in Minsk,” the Greek Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

According to the ministry, 171 out of 11 passengers on board are Greek citizens.

“Such an act, which endangered the lives of all passengers, is unacceptable,” the Greek Foreign Ministry said, also demanding that all passengers be allowed to arrive at their final destination. “We condemn the illegal arrest of the Belarusian activist Roman Protasevich, who is facing the death penalty.”

Germany called on the Belarusian authorities to promptly explain the incident, while European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen called Minsk's actions highly unacceptable and called for punishment of those responsible.

British Foreign Minister Dominic Raab warned that such extraordinary actions of the Belarusian authorities would entail serious consequences.

“There is no doubt that the Belarusian authorities used a false threat of an explosion and a MiG fighter jet to force an airplane flying from one European Union country to another to land, and this was done with the obvious sole purpose of detaining a critical journalist who had left the country. they really wanted to silence them, ”says Amnesty International, describing the landing and detention of Roman Protasevich in Minsk as an act of air piracy.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said on Twitter that the incident was serious and requires an international investigation. Simon Kovney, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Ireland, where Ryanair is based, in turn said: “Inaction or indecision of the EU will be perceived by Belarus as weakness”.

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New sanctions and a flight ban?

The US, EU, Britain and Canada, after large-scale protests in Belarus last year, imposed sanctions against representatives of the Belarusian authorities. They affected almost 90 Belarusian officials, including Lukashenka.

“By implementing an act of coercion, the Belarusian authorities endangered the safety of passengers and crew,” said the head of European diplomacy Josep Borrell on Monday, May 24.

Possible sanctions, according to Bloomberg, will be discussed at the EU summit opening in Brussels on Monday and may include sanctions against individuals and legal entities, the suspension of all flights of EU airlines over Belarus and a ban on Belavia from landing at European airports.

In addition, according to the agency, all transit, including ground transportation, may be suspended. These steps will complement the sanctions package that Brussels was working on prior to the incident in the skies, which is due to be presented next month.

Bob Menendez, chairman of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, spoke in favor of an early ban on flights to Belarus. Menendez and the heads of parliamentary foreign affairs committees of seven European countries, including Lithuania and Britain, issued a joint statement calling the forced landing in Minsk an act of piracy.

The authors of the statement called for a ban on all flights over Belarus, including to and from the country, and also appealed to NATO and EU countries with a proposal to introduce additional sanctions. Blinken demanded a full investigation of the actions of the Belarusian authorities, which, according to him, endangered the lives of passengers, including US citizens.

Latvian airline airBaltic no longer flies over Belarus. This was announced by the Minister of Transport of Latvia Talis Linkays, writes "Voice of America"... Hungarian low-cost airline Wizz Air also avoids Belarusian airspace and continues to monitor the situation, the airline's representative said. Russian airlines fly to Belarus and through its airspace in normal mode, the press service of the Federal Air Transport Agency reported. Ryanair also continues to fly over the country.

In the airspace over Belarus, stable air traffic is still maintained, but some carriers began to fly around the republic, the state company Belaeronavigatsia told Interfax: “There are no major changes visually ... considerations. On the whole, I cannot say that they began to bypass Belarus ”.

The US Secretary of State called for an early meeting of the Council of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). The leader of the Belarusian opposition Svetlana Tikhanovskaya called on ICAO to exclude Belarus, while ICAO stated that it was seriously concerned about the incident, which could violate the Chicago Convention, which is the basis of civil aviation.

The Belarusian Foreign Ministry has already reacted to reports of possible sanctions. “The haste of openly bellicose statements from a number of countries and European structures is striking. The situation is being directly and clearly escalated, - Anatoly Glaz, a spokesman for the ministry, told RIA Novosti. - There is no apparent desire to understand it objectively. Instead, the sanctions slogans were immediately sounded again. ”

Moscow reaction

Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova disagreed with the West's assessment of what happened to the Ryanair flight.

“It is shocking that the West calls the incident in the airspace of Belarus 'shocking,'” she wrote on Facebook. - Or everything should be shocking: from the forced landing in Austria of the plane of the President of Bolivia at the request of the United States and in Ukraine after 11 minutes of takeoff of the Belarusian aircraft with the activist of “Anti-Maidan”. Or it shouldn't be shocking that others behave in the same way. ”

“We are in favor of assessing this situation not in a rush, not in a hurry, on the basis of all available information,” said Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov forwarded the journalists' questions to the aviation authorities.

“I'll make a reservation right away, I won't comment on Ryanair,” he said. "There are certain international aviation regulations, and it is the international aviation authorities that should evaluate here."

According to him, the Kremlin "has no information" about the Russian woman Sapieha, who was detained with Protasevich. When asked that four more Russian citizens did not fly from Minsk to Vilnius, Peskov replied: “We do not have information about who flew from, where they flew from”. And on the assumption that Russian agents could be on board, he reacted: "This is the last thing I would like to comment on."

According to the BBC's monitoring service, state TV channels tried to justify Minsk's actions by drawing parallels with the 2013 incident when the plane of Bolivian President Evo Morales was forced to land in Austria. TV channels present the official version of the Belarusian authorities.

Former commander of the US Army in Europe Ben Hodges, quoted by Reuters, recalled that the Belarusian air defense system is closely integrated with the Russian one.

“If something happened in the airspace of Belarus, the Kremlin - or at least the Russian armed forces - could not have been unaware of it,” Ben Hodges said.

US reaction

The US Secretary of State issued a statement in which he expressed deep concern about the actions of the regime of Alexander Lukashenko, who arrested Roman Protasevich, writes "Voice of America".

“The United States strongly condemns the forced reorientation of an aircraft between the two EU member states and the subsequent removal and arrest of journalist Roman Protasevich in Minsk. We demand his immediate release, ”the US Secretary of State said in a statement released on Sunday.

“This shocking act, committed by the Lukashenka regime, endangered the lives of more than 120 passengers, including US citizens,” the document says. “Preliminary reports about the involvement of the Belarusian security services and the use of Belarusian military aircraft to escort the aircraft cause serious concern and require a full-scale investigation.”

“We are closely coordinating our response with our partners, including the EU, as well as officials from Lithuania and Greece,” the statement said.

“Given the signs that the forced landing was justified by false pretexts, we support the early convening of a meeting of the Council of the International Civil Aviation Organization to consider these events,” the US Foreign Office said.

Recalling that “independent media are an important pillar of the rule of law and a vital component of a democratic society,” the US reiterated its condemnation of the Lukashenka’s regime's continued harassment and arbitrary detention of journalists.

“We support the Belarusian people in their striving for a free, democratic and prosperous future and their call for the regime to respect human rights and fundamental freedoms,” the State Department said in a statement.

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