Inside control room of Ryanair flight hijacked from Belarus – POLITICO

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Between 9:50 a.m. and 10 a.m. on May 23, 2021, two men entered the Minsk air traffic control center.

They were there to deliver a message: there is a bomb on Ryanair flight 4978 from Athens to Vilnius, which is expected to cross Belarusian airspace soon.

Except it was a lie.

The bomb threat prompted pilots to follow mandatory safety protocols and land the Boeing 737-800 in Minsk. Once on the ground, two of its passengers – opposition journalist Roman Protasevich and his Russian girlfriend, Sofia Sapega – were arrested.

The incident sparked international outrage and saw Belarus hit with EU sanctions. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen called it “scandalous and illegal behaviour”, while Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki called the incident “an unprecedented act of state terrorism. who could not go unpunished.

The United Nations aviation agency, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), responded by launching an investigation, concluding in January this year that the bomb threat was “deliberately false”. He then extended the investigation in light of some “missing facts” and to consider new information.

Among the new information was testimony from the Minsk-based air traffic controller who guided the Ryanair pilot through the diversion to the Belarusian capital, and a recording he made on his phone of his conversation with the pilot.

The follow-up report, obtained by POLITICO, details what happened that day, implicating Belarusian officials.

In his interview with the UN agency, the controller, who remains anonymous in the report, recalls that two men entered the Minsk control center about half an hour after starting his shift on that fateful Sunday.

He identified one of them as Leonid Churo, the general manager of Belaeronavigatsia, the country’s air navigation service provider. The other, he suspected, worked for the Belarusian security services, also called KGB.

The pair approached the duty supervisor, who then informed the controller and another colleague that a Ryanair airliner was about to enter Belarusian airspace from Ukraine.

The supervisor mentioned an alleged bomb threat against the flight, and that the plane should be hijacked, but dissuaded the controller from informing the Lviv control center in neighboring Ukraine.

Meanwhile, a flurry of emails were being sent to European airports, from Sofia to Bucharest, Athens and Minsk. Each carried the same message, claiming to be from “Hamas soldiers” and warning that a bomb would explode over Vilnius if demands were not met. Hamas, a terrorist group, has denied any involvement.

game by game

The air traffic controller pulled out his phone to record his call with the Ryanair pilot, he said, because he feared the usual messages from air traffic control would be destroyed.

The recording captures not only his conversation with the pilot, but the continued input of the supervisor and alleged member of the Belarusian security services as they coached him on what to say for the duration of the 39-minute conversation with the plane.

The transcript, shared with POLITICO, shows the controller practiced the message he needed to convey to the pilots aboard Flight 4978, a sign that what he was saying was not spontaneous.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen called the incident ‘scandalous and unlawful behaviour’ | Florian Gaertner/Photo Library via Getty Images

“We have information from special services that you have a bomb on board. This bomb can be activated over Vilnius,” he told the Ryanair pilot.

But an aside picked up by the phone recording pointed out that what the controller was saying was staged: “Say ‘for safety reasons,'” the supervisor told the controller before he contacted the pilots.

The pilot was suspicious of what the controller told him and asked for more information. “The bomb…threat message, where did it come from?” Where did you find the information on this? »

The alleged KGB officer and supervisor then passed lines to the controller. After a convoluted back and forth between the three men in the control tower, the controller was ordered to tell Ryanair that the threat came from the email, transmitted to the control room by the airport . The true origin of the emails is unclear. The ICAO report says the email to Minsk was only sent when the plane had already started its descent to the airport.

The Ryanair pilot dug for more information on the email, before asking how he was to hijack the plane.

This led to another scramble to figure out how to react in the control tower. “So tell me, what to say?” the conductor asked the two men.

Eventually the pilot asked, “I have to ask you a question, what is the threat code…is it green or yellow or orange or red”

“He asks, is the message code yellow or red? the conductor asked the two men.

An unidentified man says, “Well, let it be red, the red.”

As the Ryanair pilot pondered his next move, the transcript shows more frantic discussions in the control center as the plane was about to cross the Belarusian border and enter Lithuanian airspace.

The alleged security guard said, “Yes, [name withheld]. He did not make [decision] however, there are a few minutes left before leaving our zone… near the state border. Well yes, the pilot asks what is the color yellow or red, well [the color], of danger. The controller says red. The pilot makes a decision so far…well…well…well maybe they [the Ryanair crew] plays deliberately to save time, who knows.

But in the end, the pilot believed what the Minsk control tower was saying and said, “MAYDAY, MAYDAY, MAYDAY… our intentions would be to divert to Minsk airport.”

Inside control room of Ryanair flight hijacked from Belarus – POLITICO
Once on the ground, it was clear that this was not a normal diversion | AFP via Getty Images

The Ryanair flight landed at Minsk airport.

What happened next

Once on the ground, it was clear that this was not a normal diversion.

Ryanair called Minsk authorities 12 times in a two-hour window before and after the plane landed to try to get more information about the threat, including asking for a copy of the email ( which was not provided).

Eventually, authorities allowed the crew and passengers to re-board their aircraft to continue the flight. But not everyone succeeded. Before takeoff, the cabin crew conducted a passenger count and discovered that five were missing. But no explanation was given to the Ryanair crew by ground staff at Minsk airport, and the plane took off leaving all five passengers behind. Among them were Belarusian journalist Protasevich and his Russian girlfriend.

The report does not identify the other three passengers – except to say that of the five, three were Belarusians, one was Russian and one was Greek – but Ryanair boss Michael O’Leary said immediately afterwards that he believed that agents of the Belarusian KGB were traveling on the plane and were disembarked at the airport.

If authoritarian Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko thought the world would quickly forget the incident, he was wrong – it cemented his regime’s outlaw status.

After stolen elections in 2020, when Lukashenko cheated his way back to power, he faced international sanctions and isolation. The Ryanair incident, characterized as a hijacking by EU officials, imposed even more measures against Belarus. The airline Belavia has been banned from European airspace and US prosecutors have charged four Belarusian government officials with air piracy.

As part of the investigations, ICAO has not received much help from the Belarusian authorities.

Very few images were provided to investigators of passengers getting off the flight or at the airport. Belarusian authorities said this was because the video archive was only stored for 30 days.

But video recordings made by passengers show a man present on the ramp when passengers disembark. The air traffic controller identified him as the alleged KGB officer.

The information received by international investigators was also dubious.

Inside control room of Ryanair flight hijacked from Belarus – POLITICO
If authoritarian Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko thought the world would quickly forget the incident, he was wrong | Pool photo by Pavel Orlovskiy/EPA

A second transcript, included in the ICAO report obtained by POLITICO, captured a conversation between Belaeronavigatsia’s deputy general manager, duty supervisor and controller, a week after the forced landing. In it, the Deputy Head of Authority encourages the couple to make some “adjustments” to their incident reports.

ICAO ultimately concluded that the hijacking from Belarus was “an act of unlawful interference”, was deliberately false and endangered the safety of the Ryanair flight.

Belarusian officials dismissed the report, saying it “does not stand up to scrutiny”. Officials from Belarus and Russia – an ally of Minsk – have also expressed doubts about the authenticity of the account shared by the air traffic controller.

The report has been forwarded to the UN for review. Several countries, including the United States, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Belarus have opened their own investigations.

Protasevich was placed under house arrest pending trial. His current status is unclear. In January, he uncharacteristically addressed pro-government media, saying he was no longer under house arrest.

Sapega, who was sentenced to six years in prison, asked for clemency in a letter in late June, appealing to Lukashenko for clemency.

Inside control room of Ryanair flight hijacked from Belarus – POLITICO

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