A report by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) on the diversion of a Ryanair in May 2021 flight slams Belarus for endangering the safety of the aircraft and reveals new details about the actions of an air traffic controller.  

Ryanair Flight FR4978, which flew from Athens (ATN) to Vilnius (VNO) on May 23, 2021, was diverted to land in Minsk (MSK) upon the instructions of Belarusian Air Traffic Control following an alleged bomb threat. Belarusian journalist and opposition activist Roman Protasevich and his girlfriend Sofia Sapega were arrested by Belarusian security service KGB following the landing.  

In the report, the ICAO Council condemns the actions of the Government of Belarus, stating that they endangered the safety of the aircraft, as well as contravened the spirit of Chicago convention. 

According to the report, the bomb threat, which was used as a justification to divert the flight to Minsk and subsequently detain several of its passengers, was communicated upon the instructions of Belarusian government officials and was deliberately false. 

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Opponents to the regime of Alexander Lukashenko said a flight from Athens to Vilnius was diverted in order to arrest the journalist Roman Protasevich.
 

Diverging versions 

The full report – which was published in six languages on ICAO’s website on July 19, 2022– contains a detailed timeline of the events, adding numerous previously-undisclosed facts about the incident. 

It underlines the discrepancies between the version of events presented by Belarusian officials and the factual evidence, for example pointing out that the email with the bomb threat was sent to Minsk Airport after the flight had already been diverted 

The report also states that before FR4978 took off from Athens, a Belarusian area surveillance controller (ACC) was approached by the Director General of Belaeronavigatsia, the Belarusian air navigation services provider, as well as an unidentified man presumed to be a KGB officer. 

The men informed ACC Duty Supervisor that there was a bomb onboard FR4978, instructed him that the information was not to be shared with anyone, and that the recording of the air traffic control communications with the aircraft would be destroyed. 

Despite the orders, the controller recorded the communications on his smartphone, producing a record that would subsequently be used by the investigators. 

ACC whistleblower 

According to the report, Belarusian authorities did not share some critical data with the investigators, such as email logs or telephone call recordings. The authorities also did not provide sufficient information to the flight crew of FR4978, choosing to deliberately obscure the circumstances of the bomb threat, and communicated the risk assessment code that would permit the diversion to Minsk, even though the correct procedure would have not resulted in diversion. 

The report also details how Belarusian authorities instructed the ACC Duty Supervisor to adjust the details in an incident report and an official statement, which reflected the government’s version of events, but was later retracted by the ACC Duty Supervisor. 

The ICAO team attempted to interview the ACC controller prior to the issuance of its initial report, published in January 2022, but was unable to do so, because Belarusian authorities said that his whereabouts are unknown. However, with the help of the US government the team was able to locate and interview the controller, who provided a testimony and retracted his earlier statements. 

The information gathered led the ICAO Council to the conclusion that the bomb threat was deliberately false, and that by communicating it, the Belarusian government endangered the safety of the aircraft. 

Met with fury 

Not everyone agreed with the report’s findings. “The Council Representative for the Russian Federation meanwhile expressed his State’s strong objection to identifying Belarus as the source of the unlawful interference which took place,” an ICAO press release states

On July 20, 2022, numerous Belarusian authority figures came forward criticizing ICAO and calling the report “a fabrication”.  

“This report does not stand up to scrutiny. It is categorically unacceptable and discredits ICAO as an international technical body that caters to civil aviation. We strongly disagree with the report,” Artyom Sikorsky, Director of the Aviation Department of the Belarusian Transport and Communications Ministry, is quoted as saying by Belarusian state news agency BelTA. 

According to the official, ICAO was pressured by ‘Western countries’ to condemn Belarus, while some of its contents – such as the records provided by the ACC controller – were fabricated. 

“It is far from the truth, from aviation technology and looks like a fabrication designed to somehow place the blame on Belarus,” BelTA quotes Sikorsky.