Following the outrage over the diversion of a Ryanair flight for the arrest of an opposition journalist on May 23, 2021, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko said he “acted legally” in order to counter a bomb threat.
On May 23, 2021, Ryanair’s Boeing 737, registered as SP-RSM, operating flight FR4978 from Athens (ATH), Greece, to Vilnius (VNO), Lithuania, was intercepted by an armed Belarusian MiG -29 fighter jet. Upon landing in Minsk (MSQ), a passenger identified as Roman Protasevich, a journalist, was arrested by the KGB, the Belarusian security services.
The move caused international outrage from Western countries, prompting a demand for sanctions against the Belarusian regime. In response to the event, several airlines began diverting flights to avoid Belarusian airspace.
On May 26, 2021, Alexander Lukashenko addressed the matter for the first time and defended the decision to divert the aircraft.
“I acted legally, protecting people, in accordance with all international rules,” said Lukashenko according to the state agency Belta. “The message about the bombing of the aircraft came from Switzerland.”
The Aviation Department of the Ministry of Transport and Communications of Belarus previously claimed an email, signed by “Hamas soldiers” was received by Minsk International Airport (MSQ) to warn of a bomb planted in the flight. The email claimed the attack was targeting participants of the Delphi Economic Forum, which took place in Athens between May 10 and 15, 2021. The Palestinian organization denied any involvement in the incident.
As for the exact events that unfolded on May 23, 2021, Lukashenko’s version seemingly diverges from what was known before. According to the Belarusian leader, the decision of diverting to Minsk was made by the crew.
“The crew consulted with the owners of the plane and the airport in Vilnius but decided to land in Minsk,” Lukashenko recounted. “But the question is, why did no other airports accept the plane?”
In the transcript of the conversation released by Belarusian authorities between the Belarusian air traffic controller and the crew of the flight, however, the request to divert to Minsk came from the ATC. The authenticity of the transcript has not been independently verified.
Pilot: 09:41:58: RYR 1TZ Again, this recommendation to divert to Minsk where did it come from? Where did it come from? Company? Did it come from departure airport authorities or arrival airport authorities?
ATC: RYR 1TZ this is our recommendation.
An armed MiG-29 fighter jet was scrambled to intercept the aircraft. However, according to Belarusian authorities, the fighter only took off after the flight crew had decided to divert.
“Forcing the liner to land by a MiG-29 fighter is an absolute lie,” Lukashenko added. “The task of the fighter is to provide communication and take out a passenger plane for landing in case of a critical situation.”
That version was corroborated by Major General Andrei Gurtsevich, the First Deputy Commander of the Belarusian Air Force, who told reporters that the fighter jet was scrambled only after the aircraft decided to divert.
“After the commander of this civilian vessel made a decision to land at an alternate airfield and turned the plane in the direction of Minsk, a decision was made and the MiG-29 crew on duty took off from the Baranovichi airfield,” Gurtsevich said.
In an internal memo seen by AeroTime, the airline reported that both Ryanair and Buzz, the company’s Polish subsidiary, “worked hard to get the aircraft released” after it landed in Minsk. However, Belarus’ president said that the aircraft remained on the ground out of the crew’s volition.
“Keeping the crew and passengers at the airport by armed people is another delirium,” Lukashenko said. “The crew called someone for 7 hours and did not want to fly away.”
A day after the events, 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. Lukashenko confirmed that in addition to journalist Roman Protassevich and his partner Sofia Sapega, “three people got off the plane in Minsk so as not to return from Vilnius.” He denied, however, allegations that the three individuals were officers of the KGB, Belarus’ security services.