Secret security agents were on board 'hijacked' Belarusian flight, Ryanair boss claims

Watch: Belarus opposition figure detained after Ryanair flight diverted

Michael O’Leary, the boss Of Ryanair, has said he believes there were Belarusian KGB agents on board the flight forced to land in Minsk by a Belarusian military aircraft.

“It is a case of state-sponsored hijacking,” he told NewstalkFM Ireland after Roman Protasevich, an exiled opposition journalist was arrested on the Ryanair plane

"It appears the intent of the authorities was to remove a journalist and his travelling companion," Ryanair chief executive Michael O'Leary told Ireland's Newstalk radio.

Roman Protasevich, here in Minsk in 2021, was detained after his flight made the emergency landing. - AFP
Roman Protasevich, here in Minsk in 2021, was detained after his flight made the emergency landing. - AFP

"We believe there were some (Belarusian security agency) KGB agents offloaded at the airport as well."

The United Kingdom and the European Union has called for the immediate release of Mr Protasevich.

Dominic Raab, the foreign secretary, said, “The UK condemns yesterday’s actions by the Belarusian authorities, who arrested journalist Roman Protasevich on the basis of a ruse, having forced his flight to land in Minsk. Mr Lukashenko must be held to account for his outlandish actions.

“The UK calls for the immediate release of Mr Protasevich and other political prisoners held in Belarus. The UK is working with our allies on a coordinated response, including further sanctions."

Watch: Dominic Raab ‘alarmed’ at Roman Protasevich arrest

The civilian plane was flying between Athens and Vilnius, two EU capitals, and carried more than 100 passengers before it was forced to land in what Brussels called a “coercive act” and “inadmissible step”. AirBaltic has become the first airline to stop flights over Belarusian airspace.

The Lithuanian foreign ministry claimed that there were four Belarusians and three Russians onboard the plane. Mr Protasevich is Belarusian and his girlfriend, who is reportedly also detained, is Russian, meaning there are two Russian nationals unaccounted for.

Linas Linkevicius, former Lithuanian foreign affairs minister, said six people did not fly back to Vilnius. He suggested the four, excepting the journalist and his partner, could have been part of a secret services operation.

Belarus has insisted it acted legally, and accused the West of "politicising" the situation.

"There is no doubt that the actions of our competent authorities... fully met established international rules," Belarusian foreign ministry spokesman Anatoly Glaz said.

"Unfounded accusations are being made," he said in a statement, accusing the West of not wanting to be objective and threatening to slap new sanctions on Belarus.

Sanctions under discussion

EU leaders will discuss possible sanctions against President Alexander Lukashenko’s regime on Monday evening on the first day of a two day summit in Brussels.

The arrest of the founder and editor of Nexta, a social media channel that reported on mass protests that broke out last summer against Mr Lukashenko, is now expected to dominate talks over dinner.

“This is yet another blatant attempt by the Belarusian authorities to silence all opposition voices,” a statement from Josep Borrell, the EU’s chief diplomat said.

“We call for the immediate release of Mr Pratasevich,” Mr Borrell said, “An international investigation into this incident must be carried out to ascertain any breach of international aviation rules.”

“The EU will consider the consequences of this action, including taking measures against those responsible,” Mr Borrell said, raising the prospect of the bloc imposing sanctions on Belarus.

Measures could include economic sanctions and targeted sanctions at officials, as well as the banning of Belarus' national airline from EU airports.

Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, said those responsible for the “Ryanair hijacking must be sanctioned”.

“The outrageous and illegal behaviour of the regime in Belarus will have consequences,” she said.

Alexander De Croo, the prime minister of Belgium, said that the European Council needed to give a “clear and unequivocal message”.

“We have to consider sanctions, including banning Belavia [Belarus’ national airline] from landing in EU airports,” he tweeted.

'Kidnapping' condemned

German and French officials and ministers also condemned the incident, which Tom Tugendhat, the chair of the UK’s Foreign Affairs Committee, said was “air piracy” and “kidnapping”.

Mr Raab will set out further details of the UK's response to Belarus over the arrest of the opposition activist.

The EU was already preparing a fourth round of sanctions against Belarus after the rigged election and crackdown by the regime last year.

Along with the United States, Britain and Canada, the EU has already imposed asset freezes and travel bans on almost 90 officials, including President Alexander Lukashenko.

EU sanctions require the unanimous support of the bloc’s 27 member states.

Monday’s summit dinner is too soon for the measures to be prepared for approval but leaders are expected to strongly condemn the arrest and call for Mr Pratasevich’s release.

Russia on Monday said it was shocked by the Western outcry over Belarus's diversion of a passenger plane carrying an opposition activist.

"We are shocked that the West calls the incident in Belarusian air space 'shocking,'" Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said on Facebook, accusing Western nations of "kidnappings, forced landings and illegal arrests".

Watch: Defiant Belarus defends diversion of plane carrying activist