Belarus has denied being involved in the diversion of a plane that carried a critical journalist in May last year, shortly after the US charged four of the country’s officials.
US prosecutors charged four Belarus officials with aircraft piracy on Thursday for diverting a Ryan Air flight to Minsk that carried the journalist, something the country’s president denied a day later.
The charges against the four officers stated that they used a fake bomb threat to divert the Ryanair flight to the Belarus capital on 23 May 2021.
After the flight had landed, journalist and activist Raman Pratasevich was arrested.
Mr Pratasevich ran a popular messaging app that helped organise mass demonstrations against Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko. The 26-year-old left Belarus in 2019 and faced charges there of inciting riots.
On Friday, Belarus’s state news agency Belta quoted president Lukashenko as saying that the country did not intercept, re-route or force the landing of a Ryanair plane last year.
The comments were the first response from Minsk after the officials were charged.
Mr Lukashenko had earlier insisted the bomb threat had been real and that he was “thinking about the country’s security”.
Those charged in court papers were identified as Leonid Mikalaevich Churo, Oleg Kazyuchits and two Belarusian state security agents whose full identities were not known to prosecutors.
Mr Churo is the director general of Belaeronavigatsia Republican Unitary Air Navigation Services Enterprise, the Belarusian state air navigation authority, while Mr Kazyuchits is the deputy director general of Belaeronavigatsia.
Mr Churo is accused of communicating a false bomb threat to Belarusian air traffic officials to force the plane flying from Athens to Vilnius to land in Minsk.
His deputy, Mr Kazyuchits, is accused of attempting to falsify records in order to hide the bomb threat and the involvement of state security officials.
US prosecutors alleged the incident amounted to aircraft piracy.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation’s assistant director Michael Driscoll called the incident a “reckless violation of US law”.
“The next pilot who gets a distress call from a tower may doubt the authenticity of the emergency - which puts lives at risk,” Mr Driscoll added.
Ryanair chief executive Michael O’Leary had called the incident a “state-sponsored hijacking” last year.
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