European Union (EU) leaders meeting Monday plan to consider new legal measures against Belarus after the country’s military and security services on Sunday forced a Ryanair airliner to land in the capital Minsk to arrest exiled political dissident Roman Protasevich. The U.S. and other states have joined in the condemnation of an act that has been characterized as air piracy and in violation of international aviation laws.
Ryanair flight FR4978 was en route from Athens to the Lithuanian capital Vilnius with 117 passengers. According to the airline, while crossing Belarusian airspace, air traffic control notified the crew of a potential security threat on board and ordered the Boeing 737 to divert to Minsk.
According to flight data from the Flightradar24 platform, the airliner was close to crossing into Lithuanian airspace and Vilnius appeared to be the closest airport at the time. However, a Belarus air force MiG-29 fighter had been scrambled to force the aircraft to land in Minsk.
On landing, the passengers and crew were forced to disembark and Belarus police arrested Protasevich, a journalist with the Nexta media group, along with his traveling companion, Sofia Sapega. In a statement, Ryanair said that local authorities completed security checks and found “nothing untoward.”
The aircraft was held on the ground for five hours before the crew was permitted to continue the flight to Vilnius. Crew and passengers were detained under armed guard and had their bags searched.
In a Monday morning interview with Irish network Newstalk, Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary accused Belarusian authorities of an unprecedented act of “state-sponsored hijacking.” O’Leary said he believes that members of Belarus’ KGB secret service were among the passengers who boarded the flight in Athens, implying that the “security threat” intervention by the country’s air traffic control authorities and air force was a premeditated ruse to arrest Protasevich. “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.
In a statement issued around midday on Monday, the Ireland-based low-cost carrier said it "condemns the unlawful actions of Belarusian authorities who diverted Ryanair's flight FR4978 to Minsk yesterday, which was an act of aviation piracy. This is now being dealt with by EU safety and security agencies, and NATO. Ryanair is fully cooperating with them and we cannot comment further for security reasons."
The governments of neighboring Lithuania and Latvia have called for Belarus to be closed to all international flights. Lithuanian police have launched a criminal investigation into the incident.
Since both Greece and Lithuania are EU member states, EU leaders would take the lead in coordinating any action against Belarus in a meeting of the European Council today. The Ryanair aircraft was reportedly registered in Poland, which is also an EU member state, and it is not clear whether Belarusian authorities notified their Polish counterparts about the supposed security diversion. The U.S. State Department and the UK Foreign Office have both condemned the actions of Belarus authorities.
In a statement issued on Sunday, an ICAO spokesman said the United Nations-backed aviation organization “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 International Federation of Airline Pilots Associations also protested the forced landing. “The military intervention for political reasons constitutes a wilful hazard to safety of passengers and crew, and we urge states and the international aviation community to prioritize their prevention,” the group commented.
The European Commission may enlist the European aviation safety agency’s support in dealing with technical aspects of any response to Belarus’s actions. EASA manages both the air safety list of banned airlines, which does not currently include any Belarusian carriers, and the conflict zone alerts list that warns operators to avoid airspace considered to be at risk from security threats.
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.
In 2020, 26-year older Protasevich was involved in broadcasting news coverage of mass protests against Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko. He denies charges by the authorities that he organized and incited riots, and last year fled the country to avoid detention. According to news reports, he told fellow Ryanair passengers that he was facing the death penalty, as he was led away by police.
Lukashenko has been head of state in Belarus since 1994. Opposition groups have claimed that he rigged the 2020 election and the EU also rejected the result as legitimate and imposed sanctions on the president and 40 or so Belarusian officials.
The following two articles of the Chicago Convention, which established ICAO, could potentially apply in any action taken against Belarus:
* “The contracting States recognize that every State must refrain from resorting to the use of weapons against civil aircraft in flight and that, in case of interception, the lives of persons on board and the safety of aircraft must not be endangered. This provision shall not be interpreted as modifying in any way the rights and obligations of States set forth in the Charter of the United Nations.”
* “Each contracting State agrees not to use civil aviation for any purpose inconsistent with the aims of this Convention.”