Belarus Now Wants You To Believe Hamas Sent Bomb Scare That Led To Journalist’s Capture

The boss of Ryanair says that Belarusian agents were involved in the “piracy” incident over Belarus.

Lituania Belarus Opposition
AP / via Twitter / YouTube Screencap

Belarus now claims that Palestinian militant group Hamas was behind yesterday’s sensational diversion of Ryanair Flight FR4978 to Minsk, the Belarusian capital, that led to the arrest of opposition journalist Roman Protasevich. Meanwhile, the airline’s CEO Michael O’Leary has suggested that Belarusian KGB agents were also aboard the aircraft. After initially downplaying the incident, the airline subsequently deemed it as “air piracy,” with O’Leary himself describing it as a “state-sponsored hijacking.”

There is now a growing push for bans on flights crossing Belarusian airspace, led by Lithuania and Latvia’s airBaltic. Meanwhile the United Kingdom has recommended its airlines avoid the area and it has also suspended Belarusian national carrier Belavia’s operating permit to the U.K.

The Ryanair 737-800, operating between Athens and Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, was diverted to Minsk while flying over Belarus yesterday due to an alleged security alert. “It appears the intent of the authorities was to remove a journalist and his travelling companion … we believe there were some KGB agents offloaded at the airport as well,” O’Leary told Irish radio station Newstalk Breakfast.

Andrzej Otrębski/Wikimnedia Commons

Seen here in Gdansk, Poland, in 2019, Ryanair 737-800 SP-RSM was the aircraft involved in the incident over Belarus. 

Protasevich is the former editor of Telegram channels Nexta and Nexta Live, and is widely regarded as a key commentator in mobilizing the opposition to Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko.

Belarusian air traffic control informed the crew of a potential security risk on board — widely reported as a bomb scare — and a fully armed Belarusian Air Force MiG-29 Fulcrum fighter jet escorted it into Minsk National Airport. This is a standard response for these kinds of instances, all around the world, although data from the flightradar24.com website shows the airliner was only two minutes from Lithuanian airspace when it was diverted.

Tadeusz Giczan, the current editor of Nexta, tweeted that the bomb scare had been triggered by Belarusian KGB agents aboard the plane. When he became aware of what was happening, Protasevich reportedly began handing over his laptop and other personal items to his girlfriend, Sofia Sapega. Other accounts suggest that Protasevich had become suspicious of the situation when he noticed someone following him at Athens Airport.

Once on the ground, the passengers were disembarked, their luggage searched, and Protasevich was arrested by Belarusian authorities, reportedly telling fellow travelers beforehand that “I’m facing the death penalty here.” Sapega was also taken off the plane but her current status is unclear. After more than six hours on the ground, local authorities deemed the 737 to be safe and it was cleared to depart to Vilnius. It landed there safely at 9:25 pm local time and was welcomed Lithuanian Prime Minister Ingrida Simonyte.

Simonyte herself declared that the aircraft had been “hijacked” and described the incident as an “unprecedented attack on the international community”.

Multiple reports had suggested that another four individuals also disembarked at Minsk, now apparently confirmed by O’Leary’s remarks to Newstalk Breakfast. Although not stated explicitly, the implication is that Belarusian security services — which still use the Soviet-era KGB name — were shadowing Protasevich prior to his flight. The blogger has lived in exile in Lithuania since 2019. Sapega, a Russian citizen, is currently studying in Lithuania.

Belarus has been steadfast in its view that its officials took the correct course of action. Today, Artem Sikorsky, director of the Belarusian Aviation Department of the Ministry of Transport, presented what’s claimed to be a bomb threat sent by Hamas via email.

“We, the Hamas soldiers, demand that Israel cease fire in the Gaza Strip,” the purported message read. “We demand that the European Union renounce its support for Israel in this war. It is known that the participants of the Delphi Economic Forum are returning home on Flight 4978. A bomb is planted in this plane. If you do not fulfill our demands, the bomb will explode on May 23 over Vilnius”. A ceasefire between Israel and Hamas in the recent Gaza Strip conflict had already come into effect two days earlier. Another discrepancy with that narrative is that the supposed warning was sent to Minsk, rather than Vilnius, that actual destination and target.

State media in Belarus confirmed that Lukashenko personally gave the order for the response. “There is no doubt that the actions of our competent authorities … fully met established international rules,” said Anatoly Glaz, a spokesman for the Belarusian foreign ministry.

Clearly, Protasevich is a thorn in the side of the Belarusian authorities who have accused him of helping orchestrate last year’s mass protests against Lukashenko. These had followed accusations of election fraud and were met with a heavy-handed response from Minsk. Nexta, in particular, played a significant role in getting around an official media blackout and was also fairly instrumental in reporting on the violence of the subsequent crackdown.

Since yesterday’s dramatic events, officials in Latvia and Lithuania have called for the airspace over Belarus to be closed for all international flights and already some airlines have diverted their flights accordingly. As well as airBaltic, other commercial carriers that appear to have taken such action are Austrian Airlines, and Wizz Air of Hungary. Ukrainian officials are also reportedly drafting similar guidelines for their own carriers.

For its part, the European Union Aviation Safety Agency has contacted national authorities in the region to “raise awareness of the situation,” so that each airline can make its own risk assessment.

Leaders of other nations have also meanwhile condemned the Belarusian actions and U.S. secretary of state, Antony Blinken, has called for Protasevich’s immediate release.

“This shocking act perpetrated by the [Lukashenko] regime endangered the lives of more than 120 passengers, including U.S. citizens,” a statement from the U.S. Department of State declared. “Initial reports suggesting the involvement of the Belarusian security services and the use of Belarusian military aircraft to escort the plane are deeply concerning and require full investigation.”

Initially, Ryanair did not mention Protasevich’s arrest, only noting that the airliner had been cleared to depart Belarus “together with passengers and crew.” Following a wave of social media criticism, an updated statement from the airline issued today described the action as “an act of aviation piracy.”

“The outrageous and illegal behaviour of the regime in Belarus will have consequences,” tweeted President of the European Union (EU) Commission Ursula Von der Leyen. “Those responsible for the Ryanair hijacking must be sanctioned. Journalist Roman Protasevich must be released immediately. [The European Commission] will discuss tomorrow action to take.”

Meanwhile, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, said the incident was “serious and dangerous” and called for an international investigation.

Unsurprisingly, the nature of the incident has generated considerable discussion and concern has been raised about how easy it could be for other regimes to take similar action.

“If aircraft can be forced to the ground … in order to punish the political opponents of tyrants, then journalists here in the UK, politicians anywhere in Europe will find it harder to speak out,” said Tom Tugendhat, the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the United Kingdom.

It will also be interesting to see what measures the EU will call for once it has met today to discuss the situation. Following the crackdown on last year’s protests, the EU imposed sanctions on numerous Belarusian officials, including Lukashenko. For its part, the Belarusian leader has sought to establish closer ties with its ally Russia, including expanding military cooperation, although, so far, that has had mixed results, with plans to establish a Russian airbase on Belarusian territory falling through.

We will have to wait and see what kind of fallout from yesterday’s incident is still to come. Curously, however, a day later, on May 24, Belarusian authorities reportedly prevented Lufthansa Flight LH1487, an Airbus A319, departing Minsk for Frankfurt, due to a “because of a terror threat.” Passengers were apparently requested to leave the aircraft and undergo further security checks and it arrived in Frankfurt almost two hours late. At this point, it’s not clear exactly what the circumstances were and whether there is a direct connection between the two events.

We will continue to update this story as more details become available.

Contact the author: thomas@thedrive.com