The diversion of a Ryanair flight by the Belarusian regime to arrest a journalist drew the ire of western nations, which called for sanctions. Several airlines chose to avoid Belarus’ airspace.
What happened to flight FR4978?
On May 23, 2021, an armed Belarusian MiG-29 fighter jet intercepted Ryanair’s Boeing 737, registered SP-RSM, operating flight FR4978 from Athens (ATH), Greece, to Vilnius (VNO), Lithuania. 126 passengers and six crew members were on board the airliner. Pretexting there was a bomb threat on board, the plane was escorted to carry out an emergency landing at Minsk National Airport (MSQ) in the capital city of Belarus.
At the time of the diversion, the aircraft was 72 kilometers away from Vilnius, its destination, and 30 kilometers from the Lithuanian border. Despite the alleged urgency of the bomb threat, Belarus authorities preferred to divert to Minsk, 183 kilometers away. Other Belarusian airports were also closer, such as Grodno Airport (GNA) which was about 70 kilometers from the point of diversion.
When the plane landed in Minsk, two passengers were detained by the KGB, the Belarusian security services. They were identified as Roman Protasevich and his partner Sofia Sapega, a student. Protasevich is a Belarusian journalist, co-founder, and former editor-in-chief of the Nexta information channel.
Nexta was particularly active during the recent protests in Belarus which started in May 2020, following the sixth reelection of President Alexander Lukashenko. According to the exiled opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, Protasevich may face the death penalty in Belarus, the last European country to apply such sentence. The Belarusian security services placed Protasevich and Nexta co-founder Stepan Putilo on the list of “individuals involved in terrorist activities” in November 2020.
Other passengers reported being searched and detained for seven hours. The plane departed from Minsk and landed in Vilnius later in the evening of May 23, 2021, where it was welcomed by Lithuanian authorities. Roman Protasevich was not on board.
The European Union and NATO call for sanctions
While the matter should be discussed among member states of the European Union during the European Council summit to take place between May 24 and 25, 2021, in Brussels, several nations already voiced their outrage regarding the hijack.
The Foreign Affairs Committees of Czech Republic, Germany, Poland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Ireland, the United Kingdom, and the United States published a joint statement in which they condemned a “reckless act [that] put the passengers and crew in grave danger,” a “reminder of the illegitimacy of the administration claiming authority in Minsk.” They called for an investigation from the ICAO, the aviation agency of the United Nations. France’s Foreign Affairs Minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, qualified the event as “unacceptable” and called for a “firm and united answer” from the European Union.
ICAO commented, saying the incident infringed on international air law. “ICAO is strongly concerned by the apparent forced landing of a Ryanair flight and its passengers, which could be in contravention of the Chicago Convention,” the agency said.
Russia reacted to the wave of outrage among western countries, drawing a parallel with the diversion of Bolivian President Evo Morales’ plane in Vienna in 2013 under suspicion that it was possibly transporting the whistleblower Edward Snowden, wanted by the United States. “It is shocking that the West calls the incident in Belarusian airspace ‘shocking’,” Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova wrote on Facebook. “Either everything should be shocking: the forced landing in Austria of the plane of the President of Bolivia at the request of the United States […]. Or [they] should not be shocked by the similar behavior of others.”
Airlines reroute to avoid Belarus airspace
Hours after Ryanair aircraft landed, the Irish low-cost carrier published a statement in which they said “nothing untoward was found and authorities cleared the aircraft to depart together with passengers and crews,” without mentioning if, and how many passengers were left behind. Asked about the matter in an interview with Newstalk on May 24, 2021, the airline’s CEO Michael O’Leary called the diversion “a case of state-sponsored hijacking … state-sponsored piracy.”
Our FR4978 flight has landed safely in Vilnius at 19:25hrs UK time (21:25hrs local time). Here is Ryanair’s statement on today’s diversion to Minsk Airport pic.twitter.com/i0xhdpwTAF— Ryanair Press Office (@RyanairPress) May 23, 2021
The International Air Transport Association, which regroups 290 airlines, called for a full investigation. “We strongly condemn any interference or requirement for landing of civil aviation operations that is inconsistent with the rules of international law,” IATA said.
While no decision was taken yet by the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), airBaltic took the initiative of avoiding Belarus’ airspace. Thus, on May 24, 2021, flights BT410 from Riga, Latvia to Odessa, Ukraine, and BT724 from Riga to Tbilisi, Georgia, flew respectively through the Polish and Russian airspaces instead. Likewise, Wizzair’s flight W66285 from Kyiv, Ukraine to Tallinn, Estonia, circled around Belarus.
Update – 14:35 (EET)
Ryanair denounces “aviation piracy”
In an updated statement, Ryanair condemned “the unlawful actions of Belarusian authorities […] which was an act of aviation piracy.”
Our updated statement regarding yesterday’s (23 May) diversion of FR4978. pic.twitter.com/BANHrDvXMq— Ryanair Press Office (@RyanairPress) May 24, 2021
Update – 15:51 (EET)
Lithuania prohibits flight from flying through Belarus airspace
Starting from May 25, 2021, Lithuania will ban all flights to or from its airports from crossing neighboring Belarus airspace.
“Any flights to or from Lithuanian airports via Belarusian airspace are prohibited,” Transport Minister Marius Skuodis said.
The ban comes into effect on May 25, 2021.
Update – 16:49 (EET)
Five people did not reach Vilnius
A spokeswoman for the Lithuanian prime minister reported that out of the 126 passengers that boarded the flight in Athens, only 121 made it to Vilnius, meaning that five stayed in Minsk.
“Ryanair corrected the stated passenger numbers three times to us. The latest correction is that 126 passengers left Athens and 121 landed in Vilnius. This does not include the crew of six,” spokeswoman Rasa Jakilaitiene told Reuters.
Additionally to Roman Protasevich and his partner Sofia Sapega, the Belarusian opposition suspects that KGB agents had boarded the flight.
Update – 19:20 (EET)
UK Civil Aviation Authority requests for airlines to avoid Belarus airspace
The UK Civil Aviation Authority suspended foreign carrier permits held by Belarusian air carriers indefinitely. “This suspension applies to both scheduled operators, including the Belarusian airline Belavia, as well as chartered air carriers,” the CAA said in a statement.
“The Civil Aviation Authority has also issued a notice to all UK registered airlines requesting that they avoid overflight of any territory of the Republic of Belarus