MIAMI – Belarus forced a Ryanair (FR) Boeing 737-800 to land in the country so that authorities could detain a prominent journalist and activist who helped organize demonstrations against authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko last year.

On Sunday, May 23, Flight FR4978 was passing through Belarusian airspace on its way from Athens to Vilnius, Lithuania’s capital, when it was intercepted by an armed Belarusian MiG -29 fighter jet and forced to make an emergency landing in Minsk after receiving a fake bomb alert. On the ground, security agents detained Roman Protasevich, the founder of NEXTA, a social media news channel that played a key role in the protests last summer.

Belarusian authorities said they had replied to the flight’s request for assistance about an in-flight bomb threat originating from Hamas. A Belarusian fighter jet then escorted the plane to a Minsk airport (MSQ). However, Belarus’ opposition and European countries, and the US are accusing Belarusian authorities of faking the bomb threat to force the plane to land as part of a pre-planned operation to apprehend Protasevich.

The interception of the flight is now being referred to as “state-sponsored piracy” by many. So far, AirBaltic (BT) SAS Scandinavian Airlines (SK) informed on Monday that they would avoid Belarusian airspace. “Safety is always our highest priority. We follow the development closely and are in close contact with Scandinavian and European aviation authorities and follow their instructions,” said SK.

The Athens to Vilnius plane with NEXT founder Roman Protasevich on board that was forced to land earlier today in Belarus. Photo: NEXTA

Strong Criticism from Officials, Aviation Authorities

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken condemned Belarus for forcing down a commercial airliner over its airspace in order to apprehend a dissident on the flight. Unlike other EU countries, the US has the authority to ban US airlines to enter Belarusian airspace.

On its part, the German Foreign Ministry stated on Sunday that Belarus must clarify why a flight bound for Lithuania was diverted and a journalist aboard was detained. EU leaders also expressed their surprise and stated that Minsk would be held responsible.

In addition, Ursula Von Der Leyen, president of the European Union Commission, also called the decision to redirect the flight “utterly unacceptable” on Sunday, cautioning that it would have repercussions. In addition, President Gitanas Nausda of Lithuania called the situation “unprecedented” and “abhorrent,” and demanded that NATO and the European Union respond.

European Union (EU) leaders meeting Monday plan to consider legal measures against Belarus. Since both Greece and Lithuania are EU member states, EU leaders would take the lead in coordinating any action against Belarus. Also on Monday, the Lithuanian Prime Minister said that Belarusian airspace was “unsafe for everyone” while the Latvian Foreign Minister said that imposing sanctions would be the next step against Belarus.

ICAO tweeted that it was “strongly concerned by the apparent forced landing of a Ryanair flight and its passengers, which could be in contravention of the Chicago Convention.” The Chicago Convention establishes rules of airspace, aircraft registration and safety, and details the rights of the signatories in relation to air travel. The Convention was signed by 52 states on December 7, 1944, and came into effect on April 4, 1947.

EASA is also to meet with its 31 members to look into the forced landing. Belarus is not a member of EASA, the European Civil Aviation Conference, or Eurocontrol. However, it is an ICAO member state and falls under the jurisdiction of the organization’s EUR/NAT regional office based in Paris, which carries responsibility for security issues.

Further, IATA CEO Willy Walsh told CNN on Monday that as more information came out regarding the forced landing, he would not be surprised if more airlines avoided Belarusian airspace. Walsh also understood the difficult position both the FR pilots and the airline CEO were put in, commending their actions under such circumstances and adding that this was an extremely dangerous interference on behalf of the Belarusian authorities.

Finally, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps told airlines on Monday to avoid Belarusian airspace. In a tweet, Shapps said, “Following the forced diversion of a @Ryanair aircraft to Minsk yesterday, I’ve instructed @UK_CAA to request airlines avoid Belarusian airspace in order to keep passengers safe. I have also suspended Belavia’s operating permit.” On his part, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab told the Commons that the interception was a “shocking assault on civil aviation.”

Ryanair Boeing 737-800. Photo: John Leivaditis/Airways

Statements from Ryanair

As for FR, the airline said in a short statement on Sunday that the aircraft was told to divert to Minsk by Belarusian air traffic control because of a “potential security threat on-board. The carrier added, “Ryanair has notified the relevant national and European safety and security agencies and we apologise sincerely to all affected passengers for this regrettably delay which was outside Ryanair’s control.”

The plane landed safely in Minsk, according to FR’s tweet below from the day of the incident, though the carrier did not mention the journalist in the communication. Passengers disembarked while security checks were conducted and “nothing untoward” was discovered.

CNN reported on Monday that the journalist pleaded with the FR pilots not to land, fearing for his life; however, the FR pilots told him they had to comply with their instructions, understandably worried about the now false threat of a bomb on board the flight.

Ryanair’s CEO called the forced landing “state-sponsored hijacking” and said the airline would cooperate with authorities. Speaking to Dublin’s Newstalk radio on Monday, Michael O’Leary took aim at officials in Minsk, even suggesting that KGB agents from Belarus were on board the aircraft.

“Five or six people left the plane, but only one of them was arrested, which would suggest the others were secret service people.” O’Leary told Newstalk Click To Tweet

Is forcing a flight to land under false pretenses for political reasons tantamount to hijacking, as some critics say, and thus an act of state terrorism or piracy in the modern era? What precedent could this set for commercial aviation? Leave your comments below or on our Social Media channels.

This is a developing story.

Ryanair EI-FRO Boeing 737-800. Photo: Pablo Gonzalez/Airways