Letter from Hamas causes Ryanair flight diversion, Belarusian authorities say

According to Belarusian officials, the crew decided to land in Minsk, even though the plane was close to Vilnius, and there was no coercion from the Belarusian side.

The Ryanair airplane, flying from Athens to Vilnius, made an emergency landing in Minsk at 1 pm on May 23 due to the information about a “mine,” which the crew had received from the Belarusian air traffic controllers. The incident with the Ryanair flight caused an international scandal. As a result, at least two passengers were detained in Minsk: blogger Raman Pratasevich and his girlfriend, Sofiya Sapiega. The other passengers were released in the evening.

The Belarusian side has insisted that there were 123 passengers on board. However, the Lithuanian side claimed that there were 126 people on board, while 121 people arrived in Vilnius.

Briefing on the Ryanair incident. From left to right: Director General of Belaeronavigatsia Leanid Chura, Director of Aviation Department of the Ministry of Transport Artsyom Sikorski, Commander of the Belarusian Air Force Ivan Holub, and the host of the briefing. Minsk, May 24, 2021. Photo: Belpresscenter / Youtube

At a briefing held on May 24 at the National Press Center in Minsk, the incident was called “an incident with an emergency landing.” However, the names of Pratasevich and Sapiega detained after the landing was not mentioned at the briefing.

“The external information and incompetent assessments of the actions of the Belarusian authorities are shocking and perplexing for the Department of Aviation,” said the director of the Department of Aviation of the Ministry of Transport of Belarus, Artsyom Sikorski, calling to wait for the results of the investigation and “not to politicize the situation.”

He invited international organizations to participate in an impartial investigation and provide “all the objective information, primarily the communication materials between the pilots and the traffic controller.” But he also asked the “relevant administrations” to provide transcripts of the conversations from the plane “to assess how right we are.”

“Bomb letter”

According to Sikorski, on May 23, a letter in English from an address on the ProtonMail service arrived at the National Airport “Minsk” email account with the following text:

“We, Hamas soldiers, demand that Israel cease-fire in the Gaza Strip. We demand that the European Union withdraw its support for Israel in this war. It is known that the Delphi Economic Forum participants are returning home on Foxtrot-Romeo-4978. There is a bomb on that plane. If you do not meet our demands, the bomb will explode on May 23 over Vilnius.”

A cease-fire between Israel and the Gaza Strip was already imposed on the night of May 21.

Sikorski states that the further actions complied with the Chicago Convention and the requirements of the national program of the civil aviation protection from acts of unlawful interference.

Was there a threat that the plane would be shot down?

Commander of the Air Force and Air Defense Ihar Holub called it “misinformation” that Ryanair plane was forced to land using the military fighter MiG-29. He insisted that the fighter jet took to the sky when the passenger plane had already turned to Minsk.