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Ryanair flight forced to land in Belarus to arrest journalist

Aviation Updates Philippines – Overflights have been limited over the Belarusian airspace after Ryanair flight 4978 was forced by the Belarusian government to land in Minsk, Belarus to arrest opposition activist and journalist Roman Protasevich, and his girlfriend.

Photo from The Guardian

A Belarusian Air Force MiG-29 fighter aircraft was sent to escort the passenger flight, as the airline and authorities were informed of a possible bomb threat aboard. However, this was revealed to be a pretense to mask the arrest of the journalist once the aircraft landed at Minsk National Airport.

On-board the Boeing 737-800 flight from Athens, Greece to Vilnius, Lithuania were 126 passengers and six crew members. The flight was allowed to depart seven hours from arrival in Minsk. Only 121 passengers disembarked Vilnius, the original destination, Lithuanian officials said in a Reuters report.

European Union Commission President Ursula von der Leyen tagged the incident, which happened on May 23, as a "hijacking" denoting an "attack to democracy."

"This is an attack on democracy. This is an attack on freedom of expression. And this is an attack on European sovereignty. This outrageous behavior needs a strong answer. Therefore, the European Council decided there will be additional sanctions on the individuals that are involved in the hijacking," the EU Commission President said.

Ryanair Chief Executive Officer Michael O'Leary said the incident was a "state-sponsored hijacking." In an interview on Newstalk Breakfast radio, O'Leary said he believes some Belarusian KGB agents were on-board the Ryanair flight with the intent to remove the journalist.

International organizations and governments have condemned the incident, which Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko personally ordered, according to reports.

The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) condemned the incident with the statement: "ICAO is strongly concerned by the apparent forced landing of a Ryanair flight and its passengers, which could be in contravention of the Chicago Convention. We look forward to more information being officially confirmed by the countries and operators concerned."

Meanwhile, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) tweeted: "We strongly condemn any interference or requirement for landing of civil aviation operations that is inconsistent with the rules of international law."

"Details of the event with flight FR-4978 are not clear. A full investigation by competent international authorities is needed."

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