(CNN)Ryanair flight 4978 was about to start its descent to Vilnius in Lithuania on Sunday when it out of the blue modified course after a “security alert,” turning sharply east and descending in direction of the capital of Belarus, Minsk.
Whether that safety alert was a fabrication by the Belarus authorities is now on the coronary heart of an incident which has sparked widespread worldwide condemnation and raised severe questions on security within the skies. Some governments have described the incident as a state-sanctioned hijacking.
One of the passengers on board the Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius was Belarus opposition activist Raman Pratasevich, who is needed on quite a lot of expenses. For him the diversion was rather more than an inconvenience. As quickly because the airplane landed, he was arrested, in response to the Belarus Interior Ministry.
The President of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, has been keeping off opposition protests since claiming victory final yr after a hotly-disputed election broadly condemned by the worldwide neighborhood.
Pratasevich is certainly one of dozens of journalists and activists campaigning in exile in opposition to Lukashenko’s 26-year rule. He is the founding father of the Telegram channel Nexta, which helped mobilize anti-Lukashenko protests, and was charged final yr with “organizing mass riots and group actions that grossly violate public order.” He is on a authorities wished checklist for terrorism.
Just why the airplane out of the blue modified course will depend on whose account one believes. Ryanair says that its crew was “notified by Belarus ATC [air traffic control] of a potential security threat on board and were instructed to divert to the nearest airport, Minsk.”
That’s not how the Belarus authorities characterised the incident. The Deputy Commander of Air Defense Forces, Major-General Andrey Gurtsevich, claimed that after the Ryanair crew had been instructed of a “possible bomb on board,” it was the captain who “made a decision to land at the reserve airfield (Minsk-2).”
Gurtsevich mentioned a Belarus Air Force MiG29 jet was dispatched to observe the flight and “assist” if vital.
The Belarus model of occasions has been met with widespread disbelief and condemnation among the many worldwide neighborhood, regardless of an elaborate present of fireplace vehicles when the airplane landed, in addition to in depth baggage checks. Nothing untoward was discovered, in response to Ryanair.
One motive for skepticism towards the Belarusian authorities’ model: When it modified course, the Ryanair Boeing 737 — with 171 folks on board — was a lot nearer to its vacation spot than it was to Minsk. Had there been a bomb on board, to extend the flight would have been a perverse resolution.
Europe and the US dismiss the Belarus authorities’s clarification
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen tweeted that it was “utterly unacceptable to force @Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius to land in Minsk.”
“The outrageous and illegal behaviour of the regime in Belarus will have consequences. Those responsible for the #Ryanair hijacking must be sanctioned. Journalist Roman Protasevich must be released immediately,” von der Leyen mentioned in a later tweet.
Josep Borrell, the European Union’s high diplomat, mentioned the compelled touchdown was “totally inadmissible,” whereas France’s Transport Minister Jean-Baptiste Djebbari was blunter nonetheless, tweeting that “hijacking a plane is unacceptable.”
British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab mentioned that “this outlandish action by Lukashenko will have serious implications.”
US additionally diplomats additionally weighed in, with US Ambassador to Belarus Julie Fisher tweeting, “Lukashenka and his regime today showed again its contempt for international community and its citizens.
“Faking a bomb risk and sending MiG-29s to pressure @RyanAir to Minsk with the intention to arrest a @Nexta journalist on politically motivated expenses is harmful and abhorrent.”
A senior Republican in Congress, Rep. Michael McCaul said on Twitter. “To pressure an Irish plane with practically 200 harmless civilians to land with the intention to make that arrest is an egregious affront to democratic societies world wide.”
The flight was touring from one EU metropolis to a different, briefly passing by Belarus’ airspace, and its diversion has severe implications for internationally accepted guidelines of aviation journey.
The challenge for the European Union and its allies is to come up urgently with actions to reinforce their strong words, as German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas acknowledged when he tweeted “This can’t stay with out clear penalties on the a part of the EU.”
But Lukashenko has previously shrugged off EU sanctions aimed at him and his inner circle. It is — after all — not a group that’s deeply dependent on the outside world.
Deeper sanctions would hurt the people of Belarus as much as the regime. In any case, Belarus is not economically beholden to western Europe. The EU accounts for less than 20% of Belarus’ trade; Russia accounts for 49%.
The EU had already suspended moves towards closer economic relations with Belarus before last year’s widely criticized elections.
It’s unclear whether the European Union will take up the incident with the International Civil Aviation Organization, the body entrusted with regulating the world’s skies. The ICAO told CNN Sunday that “in the meanwhile this represents a bilateral matter between the particular nations concerned. Any investigations would have to be undertaken by appropriate nationwide authorities,” who could submit a complaint to ICAO’s Council or Assembly.
ICAO later said it was “strongly involved by the obvious compelled touchdown of a Ryanair flight and its passengers, which could possibly be in contravention of the Chicago Convention.” The convention governs rules of airspace, aircraft registration and safety.
At dusk Sunday, flight 4978 finally left Minsk after seven hours on the ground — but minus one very significant passenger. Other opposition figures now fear for Pratasevich’s safety.
Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who ran against Lukashenko last year and is now in exile in Lithuania, told CNN Sunday: “We actually do not what’s taking place to him (Pratasevich) proper now and we all know how merciless [Belarus security service] may be.”
Tsikhanouskaya said she had been on the same flight from Athens to Vilnius last week. “The escalation of repressions in Belarus, and this case that is occurred with [the] flight is a results of impunity,” she told CNN.
“Democratic nations ought to put rather more strain on this regime on Lukashenko personally to make him perceive that.”