The diversion of a Ryanair flight to Belarus, allowing a prominent critic to be arrested, was a “premeditated breach of all the international aviation rules”, according to the airline’s boss Michael O’Leary.
Ryanair flight FR4978 from Greece to Lithuania on May 23 changed course to head for the Belarus capital Minsk escorted by a MiG fighter jet.
The Foreign Office has previously said the plane was grounded “on the basis of a false bomb scare” in order to arrest an opposition journalist, Roman Protasevich.
Giving evidence to the Transport Select Committee on Tuesday, Mr O’Leary said the flight crew were told by Minsk air traffic control that they had received “a credible threat that if the aircraft entered Lithuanian air space, or attempted to land at Vilnius airport, that a bomb on board would be detonated”.
He explained that the captain “repeatedly” asked Minsk ATC to provide an open line of communication back to Ryanair’s operations control centre in Warsaw, but was told: “Ryanair weren’t answering the phone”, which was “completely untrue”.
Mr O’Leary said diverted Ryanair flights in that location would normally land in Poland and the other Baltic states, but the captain was put under “considerable pressure” to land in Minsk.
“He wasn’t instructed to do so, but he wasn’t left with any great alternatives,” he told the committee.
After the plane landed in Minsk, “a number of unidentified persons boarded the aircraft” who were “carrying video cameras”, the Irish aviation veteran said.
They “repeatedly attempted to get the crew to confirm on video that they had voluntarily diverted to Minsk”, but the crew “refused to confirm that”, he explained.
Mr O’Leary added that the passengers and crew were taken to a terminal building, while the captain remained onboard the aircraft but was accompanied by an armed guard every time he left his cockpit.
“It was a very threatening and hostile environment,” he said.
“We eventually got the aircraft back out of Minsk after about eight hours.”
There were five passengers missing when the plane took off again, the committee heard.
They were Mr Protasevich, his girlfriend Sofia Sapega, and three people described by Mr O’Leary as “unidentified”.
The airline boss said: “We understand from the security agencies that it is likely that they were three KGB types.
“Now whether that was Russian KGB or Belarusian KGB, we don’t know, and we’re not sure there’s much of a difference anyway.
“But this was clearly a premeditated breach of all the international aviation rules, regulations, safety.
“An aircraft was brought down under false pretences using Minsk ATC and it seems clear that certainly two passengers were removed against their will and forcibly detained.”
In response to the incident, aviation regulators in the UK and the EU have banned Belarusian airline Belavia from operating in their airspace, and ordered UK and EU airlines not to fly over Belarus.
Mr O’Leary said it is “not in our long-term interests as an industry or in our passengers’ best interests” for those policies to continue permanently.
“We cannot have a situation whereby airlines, air travel, our customers and our citizens run the risk of being hijacked and diverted under false pretences,” he told the committee.
“But equally, far more UK citizens will be disrupted as a result of long-haul flights between the UK and Asia, for example, now having to fly around Belarus or avoiding Belarusian airspace.”
He added: “We need to have an outcome where the European and the UK authorities, hopefully assisted by international partners, receive appropriate assurances from the Belarusian and/or Russian authorities that this will never happen again.”
In a letter to the committee, Belarusian ambassador to the UK Maxim Yermalovich wrote that the Belarusian authorities “took all necessary measures to ensure the safety of the passengers”.
He added that sanctions in relation to Belavia “go far beyond the spirit of co-operation and mutual assistance”.
Mr Yermalovich was invited to attend the session, but claimed that “all relevant information regarding the emergency landing” was provided to the UK Government and aviation authorities “right after the incident”.
An investigation into the diversion by the International Civil Aviation Organisation, a United Nations agency which helps govern the rules of the sky, is expected to be completed in around a fortnight.
Aviation minister Robert Courts told the evidence session: “The apparent actions of Belarus demonstrate contempt and disregard for long standing and universally applied international norms for air transport.
“The apparent actions of Belarus are not acceptable in today’s globalised system of international civil transport.”
Civil Aviation chief executive Richard Moriarty commented: “If it is true, and the ICAO investigation demonstrates it’s true, that that pretext was used for a diversion of a civilian aircraft that was lawfully flying between Athens and Vilnius, that really is an exceptional event in international aviation.
“It is not something that we’ve ever seen before.”
Alexander Lukashenko has been president of Belarus since the post was established in 1994 and won re-election for a sixth time in 2020 with 80% of the vote, in a ballot deemed “neither free nor fair” by the European Union.
Since winning the disputed election last August, Mr Lukashenko has cracked down on dissenting voices, with many opposition figures arrested and others forced into exile.
In a video released by Belarusian authorities, Mr Protasevich appeared to admit, allegedly under duress, he was involved in organising mass protests in Minsk last year.