“Aviation piracy”: Coveney condemns “hijacking” of Ryanair flight

The Minister for Foreign Affairs said Belarussian authorities engaged in “aviation piracy” by grounding a Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius.

Minister Simon Coveney has condemned Belarussian officials for forcing a Ryanair flight carrying an opposition journalist to land in Minsk, in what he says was a “state-sponsored hijacking”.

The Ryanair flight was intercepted six miles from the border with Lithuania by a MiG-29 fighter jet, with Belarus claiming there was a bomb threat on board.

Whilst the air force claim the Ryanair crew made the decision to land, the Irish company say they were instructed to divert to Minsk.

Raman Pratasevich, a popular opposition blogger, was arrested on the plane by Belarussian police and could be sentenced to 15 years in prison for his chronicling of events under the presidency of Alexander Lukashenko.

Mr. Coveney said the EU should demonstrate a “clear and tough response” going beyond “strong press releases” about the incident, and that the current Belarussian regime has “no democratic legitimacy.”

Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary re-iterated claims that this was “state-sponsored hijacking”, and said that several KGB agents were also “offloaded at the airport as well.”

“It appears the intent of the authorities was to remove a journalist and his travelling companion,” he told Newstalk.

“We believe there were some KGB agents offloaded at the airport as well.”

One passenger talking to reporters upon arrival in Vilnius said other travellers were panicked by the forced landing.

“I saw this Belarusian guy with his girlfriend sitting right behind us.

“He freaked out when the pilot said the plane is diverted to Minsk. He said there’s a death penalty awaiting him there.

“We sat for an hour after the landing. Then they started releasing passengers and took those two. We did not see them again.”

Lithuanian president Gitanas Nauseda called the forced landing a “state-sponsored terror act”.

It follows last August’s disputed presidential election in Belarus, where suspicions are rife that Lukashenko rigged the vote.

Months of demonstrations against Europe’s longest-serving leader, a former Soviet chief, have not brought about a resolution however.

Opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who is currently in exile, said no one who flies over Belarus can be sure of their safety.

“It is absolutely obvious that this is an operation by the special services to hijack an aircraft in order to detain activist and blogger Raman Pratasevich,” she said.

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