Passengers on board flight FR4978 have described the moment a “super scared” journalist tried to offload his mobile and laptop, as he realised he would be detained by the Belarusian authorities.
The removal and detention of dissident journalist Roman Protasevich, whom opposition leaders now fear could be tortured, from the Ryanair flight has drawn international condemnation.
It had been an entirely uneventful flight – right up until the moment the pilot announced an unexpected diversion near the Lithuanian border shortly before 1pm local time on Sunday.
The pilot said the plane would be changing course for Minsk, capital of neighbouring Belarus, after Belarusian air traffic controllers contacted the flight crew to reveal a “potential security threat on board”.
Protasevich reacted immediately. He stood up from his seat, reached into the overhead locker and pulled his laptop down.
The 26-year-old journalist knew exactly what was happening. “[He] took the luggage, and was trying to split things, like the computer he gave to his girlfriend,” a passenger called Mantas told Reuters.
Mantas added: “I think he made a mistake. There were plenty of people so he could give the things to me or other passengers and not the girlfriend, who was also, I think, arrested.”
The Belarusian military scrambled a MiG-29 fighter jet to escort the Ryanair plane to Minsk airport, with Belarusian media reporting an apparent bomb scare. But no explosives were to be found.
Eyewitnesses saw Protasevich shaking and putting his head in his hands as he waited for the plane to land in Minsk.
“He was nervous at first, but later he understood he couldn’t change anything. He calmed down and accepted it,” one unnamed passenger told the AFP agency.
Soon after it touched down, security officials marched on board to pull Protasevich off the plane. As the journalist was led away, he said he feared for his life.
Passenger Monika Simkiene told AFP: “He just turned to people and said he was facing the death penalty.”
Protasevich knew he had been placed on a wanted list after last year’s mass street protests against president Alexander Lukashenko following his disputed election victory.
“We saw from the window that Roman is standing alone, and one policeman with dog was trying to find something” in his luggage, Mantas said.
Another passenger, who did not give her name, told Reuters the young journalist looked “super scared”, adding: “I looked directly into his eyes and he was very sad.”
The young journalist had previously worked for Poland-based online news service NEXTA, which broadcast footage of the 2020 mass protests against Lukashenko’s regime via the Telegram messenger app.
Protasevich, who now works for a different Telegram channel called Belamova, was wanted in Belarus on extremism charges and stands accused of organising mass riots – allegations he denies.
Protasevich’s whereabouts in Minsk have not yet been made public. A university in Vilnius said one of its female students, Sofia Sapega, 23, was travelling with him and had also been detained.
Ryanair’s boss Michael O’Leary, who referred to the incident as a “state-sponsored hijacking,” said he believed Russian security agents had been on the flight and had disembarked in Minsk.
“It appears the intent of the authorities was to remove a journalist and his travelling companion... we believe there were some KGB agents offloaded at the airport as well,” said Mr O’Leary.
Lithuanian officials said on Monday that five passengers on the flight did not reach their final destination – suggesting several agents may have been on board.
A spokeswoman for the Lithuanian prime minister said the latest information from Ryanair suggested 126 passengers had departed the Greek capital and 121 were present on arrival in Vilnius.
That would mean the operation had effectively been coordinated with spies operating on the ground in Greece, as Protasevich boarded the plane in Athens.
Belarusian opposition leader-in-exile Svetlana Tikhanouskaya said on Monday that she feared for Protasevich’s life. “We are really afraid not only for his freedom, but for his life,” she said on Monday.
Holding a press briefing on Monday, Tsikhanouskaya said: “We do not know where he is and in what condition. There is a high probability that at this very moment he is being tortured by the secret service staff.”
The Belarus department for organised crime control also reported that Protasevich had been detained, but then deleted the statement from its Telegram channel.
As for flight FR4978, Ryanair said that several hours of security checks on the runway at Minsk found “nothing untoward,” despite the warning from Belarusian air traffic controllers.
The aircraft then left Minsk at 8.50pm local time and finally landed in Vilnius at 9.25pm. Most of the weary passengers appeared unaware of the scale of the international incident.
The Lithuanian government has advised that its citizens leave Belarus immediately over safety fears, and has proposed an airline ban over Belarus.
UK and EU leaders have since threatened sanctions over the forced diversion of a plane to Belarus. Nato ambassadors will also discuss the forced landing of flight FR4978 on Tuesday.
The Belarusian foreign ministry bristled at what it described as “belligerent” statements from EU leaders – insisting that the country’s authorities acted “in full conformity with international rules”.
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