As Belarus begins to see its access to international aviation shrink following the “forced” May 23 diversion of a Ryanair passenger plane to Minsk and detention of wanted Belarusian journalist-opposition activist Raman Pratasevich, the Belarusian government has begun to try justifying its actions. But its room for maneuver appears to be narrowing rapidly.
The heaviest blow to Belarus came on May 24 when the European Union announced that its 27 members would ban Belarusian planes from using their airspace and airports, and urged all EU airlines to avoid Belarusian airspace. Sanctions against specific Belarusian officials and "targeted economic sanctions" also will be introduced.
The EU further called for the immediate release of Pratasevich and his Russian girlfriend, Sofia Sapega, from prison in Minsk and for the International Civil Aviation Organization "to urgently investigate this unprecedented and unacceptable incident."
Ahead of this decision, Belarusian officials had swerved even into Middle East politics in a bid to justify Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s deployment of the Russian attack plane to "escort" Pratasevich's Ryanair flight 4978 to Minsk on May 23.
The head of the Belarusian Ministry of Transportation and Communication’s aviation department, Artyom Sikorski, claimed on May 24 that the Minsk National Airport had received an emailed bomb warning on May 23 from “soldiers” of Hamas, the Palestinian militant group. The missive allegedly demanded that the European Union stop supporting Israel in its recent fighting with Hamas in the Gaza Strip or a bomb would destroy the Ryanair plane, en route to Lithuania from Greece, over Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital.
Sikorski did not pinpoint why the warning’s writers would contact the Minsk National Airport, located in a non-EU country, if their aim was for the airliner to detonate in Lithuania, an EU member.
The message supposedly singled out passengers from the Delphi Economic Forum, an Athens-based nonprofit that addresses European economic development issues, as a target for the attack. Lukashenka’s political nemesis, former 2020 presidential candidate Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, addressed the Forum’s May 10-15 summit about human-rights abuses in Belarus and her vision for change.
Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum later denied that the alleged bomb warning had anything to do with his group. "We don't resort to such methods," but those attempting to "demonize" Hamas may, Barhoum said, Reuters reported.
Sikorski, however, avoided this topic. He emphasized that Belarus had followed international and national law in “protecting civil aviation from acts of illegal interference” and offered Minsk as a well-equipped site for Ryanair’s emergency landing. No bomb was found on the aircraft.
On May 24, the Minsk National Airport also delayed the German airliner Lufthansa from flying to Frankfurt after allegedly receiving another emailed bomb warning from an unidentified source. No bomb was found, and that flight later proceeded.
On social media, some Belarusians and regional specialists have mocked these accounts as clumsy attempts to deflect international accusations, including from Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary, that Minsk committed “state-sponsored hijacking” in its attempt to detain the 26-year-old Pratasevich, whom Minsk considers a terrorist, and the 23-year-old Sapega.
Pratasevich’s father, Dzmitry Pratasevich, a former Belarusian armed forces lieutenant colonel now living outside of Belarus, told RFE/RL’s Belarusian Service that “I’m completely convinced that this was a previously planned operation that was scrupulously prepared and, probably, not only Belarus’ special services took part in it.”
Pratasevich, who faces up to 17 years in prison on criminal charges related to public unrest, is now located in Minsk's Temporary Detention Center No. 1, the Belarusian Interior Ministry announced on May 24. A video with warped audio posted by pro-government Telegram channels shows the young man stating that he has no complaints about his treatment and that he has confessed to organizing "mass riots" in Minsk after the country's disputed August 2020 presidential vote.
A report from the independent broadcaster Belsat, however, cites Pratasevich's mother, Natalia Pratasevich, saying that medical sources told her that her son, who has heart problems, has been hospitalized.
Sapega is currently in Minsk’s Akrestina temporary detention center, the BBC reported. The charges against her remain unknown.
Amidst calls for the couple’s release and ongoing denunciations of Belarus’ actions, Belarusian Foreign Minister Uladzimer Makei on May 24 took fault with Western countries for supposedly not requesting information from its investigation into the Ryanair incident. Makei invited “any specialists, experts,” including from NATO and the International Civil Aviation Organization, to come to Belarus to form “an objective picture of what occurred.”
Aviation experts interviewed by Current Time did not address international claims of hijacking and terrorism, but did flag irregularities in Minsk’s handling of the supposed bomb threat against the 126-passenger plane.
Russian aviation and space expert Vadim Lukashevich reasons that “something happened that influenced the pilot’s decision,” two minutes away from the Lithuanian border, not to continue to Vilnius, the flight’s ultimate destination, but to land in Minsk, a more distant site.
Belarusian officials maintain that that decision rested with the pilot alone – not with a threat from the Belarusian MiG trailing his Boeing 737-800.
On May 24, Belarus’ state-run All-National Television (ONT) released two brief audio clips on that it claims are dialogue between the Minsk National Airport and Ryanair. The airline has not yet confirmed the recordings’ authenticity.
The initial recording allegedly features a Minsk air traffic controller telling the Ryanair flight that “airport security” have received “an email” – apparently a reference to the supposed bomb threat.
In the second recording, the Ryanair pilot or co-pilot allegedly asks the air traffic controller for the source of the recommendation that the flight be diverted to Minsk. The air traffic controller replies that “This is our recommendation.”
Ukrainian aviation expert Bogdan Dolintse, the former head of training at Kyiv’s Boryspil International Airport, commented that if a pilot chooses a more distant airport in the territory over which he is flying for an emergency landing, “then the pilot already can’t choose where he should land, and is forced to execute the landing at the designated airfield.”
Fighter jets in Ukraine, however, he added, would only get involved if a passenger plane violated its planned flight path, fell out of contact with ground control, or crossed into forbidden territory.
Yet the role of a fighter jet is not to force a plane, supposedly carrying a bomb and leaving the country’s airspace, to land within the country’s borders, objected Lukashevich, who termed the Belarusian MiG’s actions “illogical.”
“[S]uddenly two minutes before saying good-bye to this flying bomb, everything is done to land this bomb on your own [territory],” he scoffed. “They conducted a plane, which has suddenly become the subject of a threat and a potential danger, toward Minsk. It could have fallen, let’s say, into Lukashenka’s palace.”
Instagram users have pommeled Ryanair about its decision. As the plane landed in Minsk, Pratasevich reportedly told crew and passengers that he feared for his life.
But Lukashevich advised against blaming the pilot for the journalist-activist’s detention at the Minsk airport.
“The pilot answers for the safety of all the passengers. The pilot doesn’t answer for the safety of some one passenger, an opponent of the Minsk authorities,” he stressed.
To clarify the pilot’s reason for flying to Minsk, Lukashevich urged an investigation into communications with Minsk air traffic control as well as any radio communication or signaling with the MiG.
But Belarus’ air communications with the outside world look set to decline.
U.S. White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki, who termed the Ryanair diversion and Pratasevich's detention "shocking," repeated calls on May 24 for an international investigation. The U.S., which has not yet closed its own airspace to Belarus’ national carrier Belavia, is coordinating with NATO, the EU, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe about how best to respond, Reuters reported.
Aside from the EU's decision, the United Kingdom on May 24 suspended Belavia's right to fly into the UK and has urged British planes to avoid Belarusian airspace.
President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, the president of Belarusian neighbor Ukraine, a frequent destination for Belarusian critics of Lukashenka, also called on his government to draw up plans for halting direct flights to and from Belarus.
A lack of overflights could cost Belarus heavily. The state-run Belaeronavigatsia, which manages Belarus’ airspace, claims that 500 to 900 planes fly over the country daily.
Although the company’s website does not include its fees for overflights, international flight- support service provider FlyTag reports that those fees can range from 65.12 euros (about $80) to 173.22 euros (about $212).
For Dzmitry Pratasevich, however, the real cost lies elsewhere.
The veteran, who lost his military title in 2020 for supposedly encouraging unsanctioned protests against Lukashenka’s government, agrees that the actions that placed his son and his son’s girlfriend in prison are “a terrorist act.”
“But a terrorist act is awful not just because it happened, but for its consequences,” he said. “And they’ll be a lot worse than the terrorist act itself.”
-This article also includes reporting from BelTA news agency.