US Charges 4 With Air Piracy Over 2021 Ryanair Flight

Prosecutors say Belarus officials used fake bomb threat to divert Ryanair flight to Minsk
By Bob Cronin,  Newser Staff
Posted Jun 15, 2021 4:39 PM CDT
Updated Jan 21, 2022 7:40 AM CST
Ryanair: Belarus Told Pilot of a Bomb
Belarus journalist Raman Pratasevich stands in an airport bus in Minsk, Belarus, last month.   (telegram Chanel t.me/motolkohelpp via AP, File)

(Newser) Update: American prosecutors have charged four officials in Belarus with air piracy over the forced landing of a Ryanair plane in Minsk last year—though there is little chance of the officials appearing in a US court. The indictment filed by federal prosecutors says a bomb threat the Ryanair pilot was informed of was a hoax concocted so authorities could seize dissident journalist Raman Pratasevich, the New York Times reports. Prosecutors described the defendants, including Leonid Mikalaevich Churo, chief of the Belarusian state air navigation authority, as fugitives, reports the AP. They said the US has jurisdiction in the case because American citizens were on the flight. Our original story from June 15, 2021 follows:

The pilot of a Ryanair passenger jet had to land in Minsk last month after being told a bomb on the plane would explode if he didn't, the airline says. Once the plane landed, journalist Raman Pratasevich and his girlfriend, Sofia Sapega, were removed from the flight, arrested, and imprisoned. Belarus denies it forced the plane to land, the BBC reports. Michael O'Leary, chief executive of Ryanair, said Minsk air traffic control told the pilot it had received a "credible threat" that the plane would be blown up if it continued to its destination in Lithuania. O'Leary called it "a premeditated breach" of international aviation rules. The pilot repeatedly tried to get air traffic control to put him through to airline officials, O'Leary said, but was told that employees in Poland "were not answering the phone."

When the pilot asked what the threat level was, O'Leary said, he was told it was a red alert, meaning he had no options but to land in Minsk. "He wasn't instructed to do so, but he wasn't left with any great alternatives," O'Leary said, per the Hill. He made the revelations in an appearance Tuesday before a British Parliament committee. After the landing, he said, the plane's crew members were told to say on camera that the diversion was voluntary but refused. On Monday, the head of the Belarus air force said there was "no interception, no forced diversion from the state border or forced landing of the Ryanair plane." Pratasevich was brought out at that press conference, where he praised ruler Alexander Lukashenko and said he'd been trying to overthrow him. A BBC reporter said it appeared his statement was not voluntary. (Read more Belarus stories.)

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