Yesterday Ryanair Flight FR4978 took off from Athens, Greece, at 9:29 a.m. local time toward its destination in Vilnius, Lithuania. But as flight FR4978 was about to exit Belarus airspace, the flight suddenly made a sharp right turn and headed to Minsk, escorted by a MiG-29 fighter sent from the Belarus military, reports Bloomberg.
When FR4978 touched down in Minsk, two of its passengers, journalist Roman Protasevich and his girlfriend, Sofia Sapega, were promptly escorted off the plane and arrested by Belarusian police. Protasevich is a Belarusian journalist in exile who has been highly critical of the Belarusian president, Alexander Lukashenko (Alyaksandr Lukashenka in Belarusian). Protasevich runs the popular Nexta Telegram channel, which played a key role in organizing protests against Lukashenko last year.
After Protasevich and Sapega were escorted from Flight FR4978, it was allowed to take off again and continue to its original destination, according to a statement from Ryanair.
Our FR4978 flight has landed safely in Vilnius at 19:25hrs UK time (21:25hrs local time). Here is Ryanair’s statement on today’s diversion to Minsk Airport ???? pic.twitter.com/i0xhdpwTAF
— Ryanair Press Office (@RyanairPress) May 23, 2021
However, once the implications of what happened became clear, Ryanair released another statement:
Our updated statement regarding yesterday's (23 May) diversion of FR4978. pic.twitter.com/BANHrDvXMq
— Ryanair Press Office (@RyanairPress) May 24, 2021
The reaction to the diversion of Flight FR4978 from western leaders has been swift, with some calling the act “state terrorism” by Belarus.
The outrageous and illegal behaviour of the regime in Belarus will have consequences.
Those responsible for the #Ryanair hijacking must be sanctioned.
Journalist Roman Protasevich must be released immediately.
EUCO will discuss tomorrow action to take.
— Ursula von der Leyen (@vonderleyen) May 23, 2021
We strongly condemn the Lukashenka regime's brazen and shocking act to divert a commercial flight and arrest a journalist. We demand an international investigation and are coordinating with our partners on next steps. The United States stands with the people of Belarus.
— Secretary Antony Blinken (@SecBlinken) May 23, 2021
Closely monitoring forcible landing in #Belarus of flight to Vilnius & reported detention of opposition figure Roman Protasevich. This is a serious & dangerous incident which requires international investigation. Belarus must ensure safe return of crew & all passengers.
— Jens Stoltenberg (@jensstoltenberg) May 23, 2021
Proud to stand with my European counterparts in unequivocally condemning the Lukashenka regime’s reckless use of a fighter aircraft to intercept a civilian Ryanair flight and arrest journalist Raman Pratasevich.
— Senate Foreign Relations Committee (@SFRCdems) May 23, 2021
Lukashenka and his regime today showed again its contempt for international community and its citizens. Faking a bomb threat and sending MiG-29s to force @RyanAir to Minsk in order to arrest a @Nexta journalist on politically motivated charges is dangerous and abhorrent.
— Julie Fisher (@USAmbBelarus) May 23, 2021
We demand the Lukashenka regime release Raman Pratasevich and all those unjustly detained in Belarus. Today’s shocking act endangered lives and served as an affront to commercial aviation safety.https://t.co/TMogvmTorh
— Ned Price (@StateDeptSpox) May 23, 2021
However, some of the social media reaction has been a bit different. While social media posts have in general strongly condemned the diversion of Flight FR4978 and the arrests of Protasevich and Sapega, some reporters and human rights activists are saying the outrage from the European Unions and the United States over the diversion of Flight FR4978 is hypocritical.
If the reports are accurate, Lukashenko’s government forcing this plane to land in an effort to arrest a dissident is a terrible crime. Interesting to contrast this with the Obama admin. forcing Evo Morales’s plane to land in 2013 in an effort to arrest a US dissident, @Snowden.
— jeremy scahill (@jeremyscahill) May 23, 2021
Why does the West pretend to be outraged when a nation imitates its gangsterism like the air piracy Belarus engaged in? Belarus didn't forget when the U.S. forced the plane of a head of state, Evo Morales, to land in order to arrest Edward Snowden & got away with it.
— Ajamu Baraka (@ajamubaraka) May 24, 2021
As of the time of this writing, the status of Protasevich and Sapega remains unknown.