Passengers reveal journalist's panic during plane 'hijacking'

·3-min read

Ryanair Flight 4978 had already begun its descent into the Lithuanian capital when the pilot announced that the plane would be suddenly diverting to Minsk, capital of neighbouring Belarus.

There was no explanation.

But one of the passengers aboard the Boeing 737 reacted immediately, standing up from his seat, reaching into the overhead locker, pulling a laptop computer from his hand luggage and passing it to a female companion along with his mobile phone.

Belarusian dissident journalist Roman Protasevich, who is wanted in Belarus for his role in broadcasting huge opposition protests in Minsk last year, did not have much time. 

Belarusian blogger Roman Protasevich, detained when a Ryanair plane was forced to land in Minsk, is seen in a pre-trial detention facility, as he says, in Minsk, Belarus May 24, 2021 in this still image taken from video. Telegram@Zheltyeslivy/Reuters TV/via REUTERS THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. - RC2KMN9UR3TU
Belarusian blogger Roman Protasevich panicked upon hearing his flight was making a forced landing. RIGHT: Airport personnel and security forces are seen on the tarmac in front of Protasevich's Ryanair flight. Source: Reuters

Minsk is less than 200km from Vilnius. The diversion would take minutes.

"When it was announced they were going to land in Minsk, Roman stood up, opened the luggage compartment, took luggage and was trying to split things," said a Lithuanian passenger, who gave his name only as Mantas.

"I think he made a mistake. There were plenty of people so he could give the things to me or other passengers and not the girlfriend, who was also I think arrested."

Outside the plane - although not visible to Mantas - was a Soviet-era MiG-29 fighter jet, on orders from Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko to force the plane to Minsk.

Airport personnel and security forces are seen on the tarmac in front of a Ryanair flight which was forced to land in Minsk, Belarus, May 23, 2021. Picture taken May 23, 2021. Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS PICTURE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. - RC2HMN9RPI6Z
Protasevich was detained after his flight touched down in Minsk. Source: Reuters

Mantas was speaking to Reuters after a day-long ordeal that began in Athens and finally ended late in the evening in the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius, after a stopover of more than seven hours in Minsk.

Another exhausted passenger, speaking to reporters without giving her name, said Protasevich looked "super scared".

"I looked directly into his eyes and he was very sad," she said.

Belarusian authorities had diverted the flight as it passed over the country because of a suspected bomb alert, state news agency BelTA said. The alert later turned out to be false.

Videotaped 'confession' sparks fears of torture

There are fears Protasevich has been tortured to force him to admit to his involvement in organising mass protests against the nation's ruling party.

Mantas, a Lithuanian passenger of Ryanair flight FR4978, speaks to the media after arriving at Vilnius Airport, Lithuania, May 23, 2021. REUTERS/Andrius Sytas - RC2XLN93NPZ5
Mantas, a Lithuanian passenger of Ryanair flight FR4978, speaks to the media after arriving at Vilnius Airport in Lithuania. Source: Reuters

Protasevich appeared in a video late on Monday (local time) where he says he is in good health and acknowledges having played a role in organising mass disturbances in Minsk last year.

Appearing on several channels of the Telegram messaging app, Protasevich, wearing a dark sweatshirt and with his hands tightly clasped in front of him, says he is in a pre-trial detention facility in Minsk and denies having heart problems reported by some on social media.

The video shows him with a new mark on his forehead, a possible injury sustained while in detention.

"Police officers treat me properly and according to the law," he says.

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