Ryanair CEO says Belarus plane grounding was ‘state-sponsored piracy’

LONDON — Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary asserted Monday that the decision by Belarusian authorities to divert a plane flying over its territory and to arrest a dissident journalist on board constituted “state-sponsored piracy.”

He said he believed Belarusian KGB operatives were traveling on the scheduled flight from Athens for Vilnius, Lithuania.

“It appears the intent of the authorities was to remove a journalist and his traveling companion … we believe there were some KGB agents offloaded at the airport as well,” O’Leary told Irish Newstalk radio.

He said he believed the incident was likely the first of its kind for a European airline.

“This was a case of state-sponsored hijacking … state-sponsored piracy,” he said.

European Union leaders will discuss toughening their sanctions regime against Belarus on May 24 at their planned summit, after Minsk diverted the Ryanair passenger flight flying from Athens to Vilnius and arrested Belarusian opposition activist Roman Protasevich.

Petras Malukas | AFP | Getty Images

Belarus on Sunday ordered its military to scramble a fighter jet to force the Ryanair plane to change course and land in its capital city, citing a potential security threat on board. State media in Belarus said President Alexander Lukashenko had personally given the order.

CNBC contacted the Belarusian foreign ministry for comment Monday but is yet to receive a reply.

Police arrested political activist and blogger Roman Protasevich, 26, when passengers disembarked. His girlfriend Sofya Sapega, a 23-year-old Russian citizen studying at the European Humanities University in Lithuania, was also detained, according to reports.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said via Twitter on Sunday that the “outrageous and illegal behaviour of the regime in Belarus will have consequences,” adding those responsible “must be sanctioned.”

A woman stands with a poster reading ‘Where is Roman (Protasevich)?!’ in the arrival area as passengers disembark from a Ryanair passenger plane from Athens, Greece, that was intercepted and diverted to Minsk on the same day by Belarus authorities, after it landed at Vilnius International Airport, its initial destination, on May 23, 2021.

Petras Malukas | AFP | Getty Images

The European Union has also called for the immediate release of Protasevich and said it would discuss the appropriate action to take.

The U.S. echoed calls for the immediate release of Protasevich and said it condemned the “forced diversion” of the flight.

“Given indications the forced landing was based on false pretenses, we support the earliest possible meeting of the council of the International Civil Aviation Organization to review these events,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said.

In a statement Monday, the International Federation of Air Line Pilots’ Associations and the European Cockpit Association also shared concerns that the forced landing amounted to an “act of unlawful interference, bearing all the hallmarks of state-sponsored hijacking.”

Both bodies called for an independent enquiry into the incident.

“Any military intervention against a civilian aircraft constitutes a willful hazard to the safety of passengers and crew,” they added. 

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