Ryanair’s chief executive has described the forced diversion of Ryanair flight FR4978 to Minsk as “a state-sponsored hijacking”.
Michael O’Leary was giving evidence to a special enquiry by the Transport Select Committee into the incident.
The routine flight departed Athens for the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius, on 23 May. Among the 132 passengers and crew on board the Boeing 737 were the prominent opposition activist, Roman Protasevich and his girlfriend Sofia Sapega.
The aircraft was 60 miles from its intended destination of Vilnius when the crew were informed of a potential security threat on board. The captain was urged to divert to the nearest airport, Minsk, with a MiG-29 fighter in attendance.
“He wasn’t instructed to do so but wasn’t left with many alternatives,” Mr O’Leary told MPs.
The Ryanair CEO revealed that, on arrival in the Belarus capital, the flight crew were asked to record video statements saying they had voluntarily chosen to divert to Minsk but refused to do so.
“It was a very threatening and hostile environment,” he said.
Mr Protasevich and Ms Sapega were arrested and are still in detention. On Monday 14 June Mr Protasevich took part in a government news conference in Minsk. He is believed to have been participating under duress.
The flight resumed after several hours on the ground.
Mr O’Leary said that three other people did not continue their journey: one travelling on a Belarus passport, one on a Greek passport and one on a Russian passport.
The Ryanair boss speculated they were KGB operatives. His final statement was: “You cannot have aircraft being hijacked or diverted under piratical circumstances so that individual passengers can be detained or have their freedoms withdrawn in a reprehensible manner as occurred on 23 May in Belarus.”
In the wake of the diversion, the national airline, Belavia, was banned from large areas of European airspace. Many European governments instructed their airlines not to overfly Belarus.
The Belarus ambassador declined an invitation to attend the committee’s inquiry. He wrote to Huw Merriman, chair of the Transport Select Committee, and called the ban on Belavia an “act of pressure.”