Belarus officials behind hoax that grounded dissident's flight, U.N. agency says

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FILE PHOTO: A Ryanair aircraft, which was diverted to Belarus, lands at Vilnius Airport in Vilnius
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By David Ljunggren

(Reuters) - The U.N.'s aviation agency on Tuesday for the first time blamed senior Belarus officials for a hoax last year that grounded a Ryanair Holdings PLC flight and led to the arrest of a dissident reporter.

The plane was on its way from Athens to Vilnius in May 2021 when Belarus controllers ordered it to land in Minsk, citing a bomb threat. Once it was on the ground, Belarus journalist Roman Protasevich was detained along with his then-girlfriend.

The International Civil Aviation Organization, which had previously said it did not know who was behind the hoax, condemned Minsk for "committing an act of unlawful interference" which contravened aviation rules.

"The ICAO Council acknowledged that the bomb threat against (the flight) ... was deliberately false and endangered its safety, and furthermore that the threat was communicated to the flight crew upon the instructions of senior government officials of Belarus," it said in a statement, citing new information.

Russia's representative, it added, strongly objected to the conclusion. Western nations have imposed sanctions against Minsk for supporting the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

The Belarus foreign ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the ICAO statement.

Minsk previously said it acted legally and in accordance with all international norms, and accused the West of using the episode to try to undermine President Alexander Lukashenko.

Protasevich, former editor of a prominent opposition news outlet, renounced his political activism and was released from jail into house arrest. The opposition in Belarus believes his recantation was coerced.

(Reporting by David Ljunggren; Editing by Grant McCool)

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