UPDATED: Ryanair says Belarus refused pilot’s request to contact airline, Lithuania trying to identify those disembarked in Minsk

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Belarusian air traffic control refused a request by a Ryanair pilot to contact the airline after being told of an alleged bomb threat, leaving him with no alternative but to land in Minsk, the Irish carrier said in a letter seen by Reuters.

Belarus scrambled a warplane on Sunday and used the bomb alert, which turned out to be fictitious, to divert the flight, which was en route from Greece to Lithuania. When it landed in Minsk, a dissident journalist and his girlfriend were arrested.

In a letter to the Belarus transport ministry dated May 26, Ryanair Chief Executive described previous correspondence from Belarusian officials as “false and inaccurate” and said the plane had been “unlawfully diverted under false pretences”.

“The pilot in command was left with no alternative but to divert to Minsk, when he was advised by Minsk ATC (Air Traffic Control) that there was a credible bomb threat to the aircraft, yet Minsk ATC refused to contact Ryanair, falsely claimed that Ryanair Ops would not answer the phone,” the letter said.

The pilot repeatedly requested information about the alleged bomb threat before ultimately agreeing to land in Minsk, according to a transcript released on Tuesday by authorities in Belarus.

Ryanair did not respond to an emailed request for comment.

Western countries have described the incident, which triggered swift European Union sanctions and an investigation, as a hijacking or air piracy. 

In another development, Lithuania is working to confirm the identities of the passengers who disembarked from a diverted Ryanair plane after it was forced to land in Belarus, the chief of Lithuania’s criminal police said on Friday.

Dissident Belarusian journalist Roman Protasevich, 26, and his girlfriend Sofia Sapega, 23, were arrested when the plane landed.

But three other people also disembarked.

Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney has said it seems likely they were secret police.

Belarus television aired interviews with three people on Wednesday who it said were the passengers in question.

One named as Iason Zisis, said to be a Greek post-graduate working at Eindhoven University, said he had anyway planned to travel on to Minsk from the Lithuanian capital Vilnius, the plane’s scheduled destination, to visit his wife.

Belarus TV named the others as Belarusian citizens Alexandra Stabredova and Sergei Kulakov. Stabredova also said she had been heading for Minsk anyway, and Kulakov said Minsk was convenient for his final destination, the city of Vitebsk.

Lithuanian police chief Rolandas Kiskis told reporters: “We are working to confirm the identities, whether the persons who were named in unofficial sources are matched by personal identification data.”

He said Belarus had confirmed that five passengers disembarked in Minsk, and that the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and Poland had also launched inquiries into the incident, as they had had citizens on board the flight.

Kiskis said the aircraft was still in Vilnius, being searched, but that Ryanair had not been as helpful as he would have wished.

See also: UPDATED: Russia To Allow European Flights To Bypass Belarus, Ukraine To Ban Belarus Airlines From Its Airspace and FBI And Poland Have Launched Inquiries Into Belarus Plane, Says Lithuanian Police Chief

File Photo: EPA-EFE/TOMS KALNINS