Ryanair urges airlines to avoid Belarus after bomb hoax

UN investigators say there was no threat when emergency landing in Minsk led to journalist's arrest

The moment a Ryanair jet landed in Lithuania last May after its journey was interrupted by an emergency landing in Belarus. AFP
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Ryanair says planes should not fly over Belarus until there are guarantees they will not be tricked into landing, after UN investigators concluded that a bomb scare that led to a journalist’s arrest was a hoax.

A Ryanair jet was forced to land in Minsk last May after a supposed threat by Hamas terrorists, giving Belarusian police the chance to seize dissident blogger Roman Protasevich and his girlfriend Sofia Sapega.

In a report to be presented on Monday, investigators at the UN’s International Civil Aviation Organisation found the bomb threat was deliberately false.

The report said it took more than half an hour to clear the plane of passengers, with the pilot allowed to remain in the cockpit, despite the supposed urgency of the bomb scare.

Although the panel stopped short of blaming the Belarusian government for the hoax, it said Minsk had withheld crucial information such as email logs.

Western governments went further in accusing Belarus of staging a ruse, and the incident led to sanctions on Belarus including restrictions on its airlines.

Michael O’Leary, the chief executive of Ryanair, told an investor call on Monday that Belarus should provide guarantees that what he called an “act of international piracy” would not be repeated.

“I think it is fundamental to the future of air travel that we do not have a repetition,” he said. “There should be no overflight of Belarus unless appropriate guarantees are obtained that this won't recur.”

Roman Protasevich, seen here being arrested on a previous occasion, was taken off the flight in Minsk. AP

Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya said the government’s failure to provide evidence was a sign of a cover-up.

She accused President Alexander Lukashenko’s government of arranging a “deliberate, pre-planned, cool-headed operation to arrest an opponent”.

But Mr Lukashenko also claimed vindication after the report did not find evidence of the Belarusian military ushering the Ryanair plane to the ground.

“They had to admit that Lukashenko did not open fire at the aircraft, did not scramble [a] fighter jet to force it to land,” state media quoted him as saying.

Copies of the report leaked to various media outlets revealed radio exchanges between pilots and the Minsk aircraft control tower, in which the crew sought clarification on the apparent threat.

Belarusian authorities claimed they had received an email from Hamas terrorists giving that month’s flare-up of the Israel-Palestine conflict as motivation, but were unable to provide details requested by the crew.

Later enquiries found that the email address in question had been set up only days before the emergency landing.

Once the plane had landed, passengers were taken off in small groups despite the apparent danger, although there were differing accounts of who was behind this.

Four inspectors spent 18 minutes apparently checking for a bomb, in a search later described as inadequate by the pilot. No explosives were found.

Western governments accused Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko of being behind the hoax. EPA

The pilot “stated that the search team was not thorough and omitted areas that would be covered under normal procedures”, the report said.

It concluded that since no bomb was found either in pre-departure screening in Athens or when the plane landed in Belarus and subsequently in Lithuania, the threat was a hoax.

The US Justice Department last week named two Belarusian officials accused of organising the plot.

Tensions are high in Eastern Europe as Belarus prepares for military drills with its ally, Russia, which is feared to be on the brink of invading Ukraine.

Both countries are under western sanctions, with Belarus punished over a disputed 2020 election and subsequent arrests of opposition figures, as well as its alleged orchestration of the migrant crisis at its border with the EU.

France’s Foreign Ministry said the ICAO report “sheds light on all the inconsistencies in the Belarusian version of the facts”.

“The Belarusian regime orchestrated the diversion of a civil plane for the sole reason of arresting an opposition journalist, Roman Protasevich,” it said.

Updated: January 31, 2022, 1:57 PM