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

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A decision by authorities in Belarus to force a Ryanair jet to land in Minsk on Sunday and detain a dissident journalist was a “state-sponsored hijacking”, Ryanair Chief Executive Michael O’Leary said.

“This was a case of state-sponsored hijacking … state-sponsored piracy,” O’Leary told Irish Newstalk radio.

“It appears the intent of the authorities was to remove a journalist and his travelling companion … we believe there were some KGB agents offloaded at the airport as well,” he said.

He added passengers and crew on a Ryanair flight forced to land in Minsk on Sunday were frightened, and were held under armed guard.

Belarus scrambled a fighter jet and flagged what turned out to be a false bomb alert to force a Ryanair plane to land on Sunday, then detained a dissident journalist who was on board, drawing condemnation from Europe and the United States.

“I think it was very frightening for the crew, for the passengers who were held under armed guard, had their bags searched, when it was clear it appears that the intent … was to remove a journalist and his travelling companion,” O’Leary told Irish Newstalk radio.

“We believe there was also some KGB agents offloaded off the aircraft as well.”

He said his airline would take guidance from European authorities on flying in Belarusian airspace, but that Ryanair had few flights crossing Belarus, and it would be a “very minor adjustment” to fly over Poland instead.

Meanwhile, Latvian airline airBaltic said on Monday it was avoiding Belarus airspace in the wake of the forced landing of a Ryanair jet bound for fellow Baltic state Lithuania on Sunday.

“Yesterday when mixed information was received about the diverted commercial flight to Minsk, as an immediate action, airBaltic decided to avoid entering Belarus airspace until the situation becomes clearer or a decision is issued by the authorities,” a spokeswoman said by email.

“The safety and health of our passengers and employees is the main priority for the airline. Currently airBaltic is continuing to closely monitor the situation,” she added. 

Photo: CEO Michael O’Leary of Ryanair airlines . EPA-EFE/OLIVIER HOSLET

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