How four 'Belarusian KGB agents tailed journalist onto Ryanair flight'

How four ‘Belarusian KGB agents tailed journalist Roman Protasevich onto Ryanair flight from Athens and argued with cabin crew over bogus bomb threat’ before plane was forced to land under MiG-29 fighter jet escort

  • Roman Protasevich was arrested in Minsk on Sunday after plane diverted
  • Fighter jet scrambled to escort Ryanair plane on bogus claims a bomb aboard 
  • Belarusian KGB agents were on plane telling cabin crew to land, it is claimed
  • Protasevich had earlier seen ‘dodgy’ men taking photos of him at airport 
  • Four passengers also got off at Minsk and never rejoined flight, Rynair boss said

When Roman Protasevich arrived at Athens’ airport on Sunday morning he noticed a group of ‘dodgy’ men taking pictures of him with their phones.  

The dissident journalist, who has lived in self-imposed exile in Lithuania for the last two years, was returning from an economics conference with his Russian girlfriend. 

Questions remain over how strongman President Alexander Lukashenko learned that the 26-year-old was on the Ryanair flight from Greece to Lithuania on Sunday.

With military precision a Soviet-era MiG-29 fighter jet was dispatched to intercept the passenger plane just a few miles before it entered Lithuanian airspace.

Protasevich and his girlfriend were hauled into custody as Belarusian authorities pretended to search for a bomb on the tarmac as 170 bewildered passengers looked on.

They were then left in the dark for hours before the Ryanair flight was allowed to continue to Lithuania, leaving the hijacking and arrest shrouded in mystery.

What is clear is that Lukashenko used not just military power to detain Protasevich but also a web of intelligence which stretches from the Baltic to the Aegean Sea. 

While Protasevich was visiting Greece he had posed for photos at the conference with the figurehead of the Belarusian opposition movement Svetlana Tikhanovskaya – who is undoubtedly on the radar of Belarusian intelligence agents. 

He and his girlfriend, 23-year-old law student Sofia Sapega, had also posted on Instagram while there – perhaps alerting the secret service to their whereabouts.  

At least four Belarusian KGB operatives are believed to have checked in on Ryanair Flight 4978 to Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital, from Greece.

It was these four men who started to argue with cabin crew about an IED threat when they entered Belarusian airspace, Protasevich’s allies have revealed. 

Opposition blogger and activist Roman Protasevich is pictured at a court hearing in Minsk, Belarus, in 2017. He fled the country in 2019 and had been living in Lithania

Opposition journalist Roman Protasevich, 26, (pictured after being separated from other passengers) was hauled off the plane and arrested with his Russian girlfriend Sofia Sapega, 23, after the flight from Greece to Lithuania made the emergency landing in Minsk


Instagram posts by Roman Protasevich’s girlfriend, 23-year-old law student Sofia Sapega, revealed the couple were in Athens

Ryanair flight FR4978 had been flying from Athens in Greece to Vilnius in Lithuania when it was escorted by a Soviet-era MiG-29 fighter jet to Belarus amid fake reports of an IED on board. It was forced to make an emergency landing at Minsk Airport, where authorities arrested dissident journalist Roman Protasevich


Opposition journalist Roman Protasevich’s girlfriend Sofia Sapega who was also detained

The plane was soon accompanied by a MiG-29 fighter jet which forced the Ryanair pilot to head for Minsk just a few miles short of Lithuanian airspace.  

Protasevich and his girlfriend Sapega were arrested but they were not the only absentees when the flight took off again seven hours later to continue the journey to Lithuania.

Ryanair boss Michael O’Leary, speaking today, said ‘we believe there were some KGB agents offloaded at the airport as well.’ 

‘I think it’s the first time it’s happened to a European airline,’ O’Leary told Ireland’s Newstalk radio. ‘It was a state-sponsored hijacking, it was state-sponsored piracy.’   

A spokeswoman for state-owned Lithuania Airports said the flight was redirected to Minsk because a ‘conflict between a member of the crew and the passengers.’

Ryanair’s crew were told by Belarusian air traffic control to divert to Minsk because it was the ‘nearest’ airport, despite Vilnius being less than half as far away.

The plane was soon accompanied by a MiG-29 fighter jet which forced the Ryanair pilot to head for Minsk just a few miles short of Lithuanian airspace.

Passengers, 170 of whom were on board the hulking Boeing 737, described a sudden shift in pitch and altitude as the plane made the U-turn. 

‘We all on the plane had panicked because we thought we were going to crash,’ Lithuanian passenger Raselle Grigoryeva told broadcaster ABC News.

‘This was a sudden dive, changing the altitude very drastically. It was very violent. I’ve never felt this on an airplane. Everybody was in shock,’ she said.

The pilot gave no explanation over the intercom as he informed the passengers they were making an emergency landing in Minsk.

But Protasevich knew he was in mortal danger and immediately stood up to remove his laptop from the overhead locker, handing it to his girlfriend along with his phone.

He pleaded with the cabin crew not to obey the orders to land, saying: ‘They will kill me.’

Another passenger heard him telling his lover: ‘There’s a death penalty waiting for me there.’ 

The directive to stop the plane was issued by Belarusian strongman President Alexander Lukashenko, whose regime has been plagued Protasevich’s news channel.

Protasevich, the founder of Nexta, has been instrumental in organising thousands of people to rally for democratic rights over the last year.

His channel, run through the encrypted Telegram messaging app, fearlessly reported on brutal crackdowns on demonstrations by Lukashenko’s security forces after last year’s disputed election. 

Lukashenko, an ally of Vladimir Putin, personally gave the ‘unequivocal order’ to ‘make the plane do a U-turn and land,’ according to a statement by Belarus’s presidential news service yesterday.

When the plane made its landing, Protasevich was straightaway singled out by the authorities who hurled his belongings onto the tarmac as a sniffer dog was deployed to keep up the masquerade that their was a suspected IED on the plane.

Fellow passengers, most speaking on condition of anonymity, described Protasevich as ‘trembling’ with fear during the ordeal. 

‘We saw from the window that Roman is standing alone, and one policeman with dog was trying to find something (in his luggage),’ one witness said.

Another said: ‘I saw how his passport was taken away. He took off his mask and said: “I’m so-and-so and I’m the reason why all this is going on.”‘

Another exhausted passenger, speaking to reporters without giving her name, said Protasevich looked ‘super scared’.

‘I looked directly into his eyes and he was very sad,’ she said.

Protasevich had posed for photos at a conference in Greece with the figurehead of the Belarusian opposition movement Svetlana Tikhanovskaya (pictured today condemning the journalist’s denetion’

A Belarusian dog handler checks luggages off a Ryanair Boeing 737-8AS (flight number FR4978) parked on Minsk International Airport’s apron in Minsk, on May 23

‘He started panicking and saying this was because of him,’ Monika Simkiene, a 40-year-old Lithuanian told AFP.

‘He just turned to people and said he was facing the death penalty.’

He was detained along with his Russian girlfriend Sapega, a 23-year-old law student at the European Humanities University based in Lithuania.

The plane took off again seven hours later to complete its journey to Vilnius, without Protasevich and Sapega, and another four mysterious passengers. 

Protasevich’s colleague at Nexta, Tadeusz Giczan, tweeted last night: ‘What we know so far: KGB operatives boarded the plane in Athens this morning together with Roman Protasevich (he noticed dodgy-looking ppl taking pics of him at the gate). 

‘Then when the plane has entered Belarus airspace KGB officers initiated a fight with the Ryanair crew insisting there’s an IED onboard.

‘Eventually the crew was forced to send out SOS (literally moments before the plane would’ve left Belarus airspace). MiG-29 took off and escorted it to Minsk. Security services entered the plane and arrested Protasevich.’

Belarus accuses Protasevich of inciting public disorder and social hatred, charges which carry punishment of more than 12 years in prison.

He could also face the death penalty if accused and convicted of terrorism. 

Ryanair boss O’Leary (left) described the act today as ‘state-sponsored hijacking,’ adding that ‘we believe there were some KGB agents offloaded at the airport as well.’ Tory MP Tom Tugendhat (right) called it ‘a warlike act,’ joining the British and US governments, among other Western nations, who have condemned the grounding of the Ryanair flight.

Police officers detained Roman Protasevich after he was attempting to cover a rally in Minsk, Belarus on 26 March 2017

He had been working as editor-in-chief of a Belarusian political outlet hosted on the Telegram messaging app called ‘Belarus of the Brain’ which has around a quarter of a million subscribers. 

Experts today warned that, despite the condemnation from Western nations, it was unlikely that much can be done to save Protasevich. 

Matthew Sherwood, Senior Europe Analyst at The Economist Intelligence Unit told MailOnline: ‘With sanctions targeting Mr Lukashenka and his domestic allies already in place, we expect the West’s response to be limited to banning flights from travelling through Belarusian airspace and Belarusian aircraft from landing at airports. Belarus could lose its membership in some multilateral organisations, such as Interpol, the international policing body.

‘The whole episode shines a light on how little sanctions are affecting domestic politics in Belarus. The most recent set of sanctions were imposed after the disputed presidential election in August 2020, which led to protests that lasted for several months. However, with continued Russian political and economic support, Mr Lukashenka and his allies have been able to crack down on the opposition movement domestically, and the protests have largely fizzled out. We do not expect a new wave of Western sanctions to have any further real impact on the domestic situation, and they are likely to drive Belarus even closer to Russia.’ 

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