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How a Ryanair flight with a dissident on board was diverted to Minsk

Simon Calder’s Travel

“We have information from special services that you have bomb on board,” was the chilling message to the pilots of a Ryanair plane flying from Athens to the Lithuanian capital.

“The bomb can be activated over Vilnius”.

With little information to act on beyond an assurance that it was the highest level of bomb threat, the pilots of FR4978 diverted to Minsk.

Yet when the plane arrived, there was no sense of urgency. An “emergency evacuation” of the plane took 50 minutes – despite the crew urging that all the passengers should disembark as quickly as possible.

The failure to get passengers and crew swiftly off an aircraft that was thought to have a bomb on board is one of many mysteries revealed in the official report on the incident.

On 23 May 2021, a Boeing 737 was on a routine Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius. One of the passengers on board was a Belarusian dissident, Roman Protasevich.

The flight path took the plane over Greek, Bulgarian, Romanian and Ukrainian airspace without incident.

Just 24 seconds after the aircraft entered Belarusian airspace, though, the pilots were warned by air-traffic controllers of a bomb threat.

A new report by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) traces the sequence of events that led to the plane landing at Minsk airport – where Mr Protasevich was arrested, along with his girlfriend.

Bomb threats against civilian aircraft are far from rare, and are almost always false.

As soon as the controller passed on the threat, the aircraft captain asked: “Where did it come from? Where did you have information about it from?”

The controller replied: “The airport security staff informed they received email.”

Captain: “Vilnius airport security staff or from Greece?

Controller: “This email was shared to several airports.”

The question of how controllers knew of the email’s existence is one of many that is left unanswered by the Belarusian authorities.

“It could not be established how the controller knew that emails had been shared with several airports,” the report says.

ICAO investigators obtained details of the email account that was used to make the threat.

According to the Department of Aviation of Belarus, within five minutes of the first email being sent, air-traffic controllers were aware of the threat having been sent to multiple airports in eastern Europe.


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