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World Ryanair pilot had 'no choice' in Belarus diversion

08:45  20 june  2021
08:45  20 june  2021 Source:   bbc.com

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The pilot of a flight that was diverted to Belarus, allowing the arrest of an opposition journalist, had been warned that a bomb would detonate if it continued to Lithuania, according to Ryanair's boss.

text: Protesters have called for the release of Roman Protasevich and Sofia Sapega © EPA Protesters have called for the release of Roman Protasevich and Sofia Sapega

Michael O'Leary said the pilot tried to seek advice from the airline, but was given false excuses by officials that Ryanair was not answering the phone.

He called the incident "a premeditated breach" of global aviation rules.

Belarus denies it was a forced landing.

Journalist Roman Protasevich and his girlfriend Sofia Sapega were arrested after the plane landed in Belarus's capital Minsk. Both remain in prison.

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  Belarus Committed a 'Premeditated Breach' of International Rules by Diverting Flight: Ryanair CEO The Ryanair CEO said there was a "premeditated breach" of international aviation rules when Minsk air traffic control diverted a plane into Belarus, and the pilot was put under "considerable pressure" to land there.O'Leary spoke to a British Parliament committee Tuesday about the altered flight, which was supposed to trek from Greece to Lithuania before Minsk air traffic control contacted the plane with claims that "a bomb on board would be detonated" once they entered Lithuanian airspace. Raman Pratasevich, the journalist, was arrested once the plane landed in Belarus.

Ryanair flight FR4978 was travelling from the Greek capital, Athens, to Vilnius in Lithuania on Sunday 23 May when it made an abrupt change of course over Belarus, some 10km (six miles) from the Lithuanian border.

The incident has drawn condemnation from the EU, UK and other Western nations. They reacted by banning state carrier Belavia from their airports and ordering airlines to avoid Belarusian airspace.

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In a detailed account, Mr O'Leary told a British parliamentary committee on Tuesday of the series of events that led to the plane's diversion.

He said Minsk air traffic control told the pilot they had received "a credible threat that if the aircraft entered Lithuanian air space, or attempted to land at Vilnius airport... a bomb on board would be detonated".

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map © BBC

The pilot "repeatedly" requested to speak to Ryanair's operations control centre after the bomb threat came through, but "Minsk gave excuses that Ryanair in Poland were not answering the phone", he said.

Mr O'Leary explained that flights in this area would normally be diverted to Poland or the Baltic states, but that the pilot was given no option but to land in Minsk.

When the pilot asked what the threat level was, he was told it was a red alert "which gave him no alternative", he said.

The plane was "brought down under false pretences using Minsk Air Traffic Control and it seems clear two passengers were removed against their will and detained", he said.

a man wearing glasses: Michael O'Leary was addressing a British parliamentary committee © PA Media Michael O'Leary was addressing a British parliamentary committee

Following the plane's landing, Mr O'Leary said the crew were pressured into confirming on video that they had voluntarily diverted to Minsk but that they refused to do so.

Belarus parades detained journalist at media event

  Belarus parades detained journalist at media event Roman Protasevich, who was taken off a Ryanair flight, is made to appear at an official briefing.A BBC reporter who was initially at the media briefing says Mr Protasevich, 26, was clearly appearing under duress.

When the plane took off again, he said there were five passengers missing - Mr Protasevich, Ms Sapega and three "unidentified persons", whom he said he understood from security agencies to be "KGB types".

The three individuals, who included a Greek passenger, told Belarus TV they had been travelling to Belarus anyway so decided not to go on to Lithuania.

An unverified transcript from the Belarusian transport ministry has previously shown that air traffic controllers told the pilot "you have [a] bomb on board and it can be activated over Vilnius".

The comments by Mr O'Leary came a day after Belarus air force chief Igor Golub said there was "no interception, no forced diversion from the state border or forced landing of the Ryanair plane".

He was speaking at a news conference in Minsk where Mr Protasevich - former editor of the opposition Nexta channel on the Telegram messaging app - also appeared. A BBC reporter who was initially at the media briefing said the 26-year-old was clearly appearing under duress.

Mr Protasevich had also made appearances on state TV in which he has praised Belarus leader Alexander Lukashenko and admitted attempting to topple him. In one appearance, marks were visible on his wrists. Human rights and opposition campaigners say he was tortured.

Mr Protasevich has been put on the Belarus terrorism list and is accused of inciting arrest. Ms Sapega - who is Russian - has been charged with inciting social discord and enmity.

Authoritarian Belarus leader Alexander Lukashenko, in power since 1994, has cracked down hard on opponents since claiming victory in an August election widely condemned as rigged. Opposition leaders have been jailed or forced into exile.

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"It's about time European politicians realized that pressure and sanctions are not a language one should use with Belarus," said Belarus' Foreign Ministry.Many senior Belarusian officials were sanctioned by the EU as well as the U.S., UK and Canada on Monday over Belarus' forced diversion of a Ryanair flight to apprehend a dissenting citizen journalist in May and the government's harsh repression of protesters. The EU also moved to impose sanctions on Belarus' exports such as the fertilizing ingredient potash and petroleum goods, according to the Associated Press.

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