Foreign Minister Marise Payne has said the Belarusian government “put innocent lives at risk” after it deployed a MiG-29 to deliberately divert a Ryanair flight.
Payne added she “strongly condemned” the “unprecedented action” that saw authorities arrest Roman Protasevic, a vocal critic of the Belarusian administration, when the 737 landed in Minsk.
Reports at the weekend even suggested a ruse of a false bomb threat on board was used by air traffic control in order to force those in the cockpit to change course from its intended destination of Vilnius in Lithuania.
“We are also concerned by reports that the Belarusian Government allegedly grounded the flight on the false pretence of a security threat,” said Minister Payne.
“This unprecedented action put innocent lives of airline passengers at risk and was a clear breach of the international standards that underpin civil aviation.
“It forms part of a campaign of repression against free speech in Belarus — including electoral manipulation, and arrests of journalists and free speech advocates.
“Australia calls for the immediate release of Roman Protasevich and a full investigation. We will engage with allies and partners in the international response to this event.”
The Ryanair 737-8AS, SP-RSM msn 44791, departed Athens at 10:28am as flight FR4978 and landed in Minsk at 10:22am. It was just minutes away from crossing into Lithuanian airspace when it was suddenly diverted to the Belarusian capital, escorted by a Soviet-era MiG-29 fighter jet.
Upon landing, authorities took journalist Roman Protasevich into custody. Protasevich is reported to have become frantic in the plane’s cabin when the pilots announced the last-minute diversion to Minsk, and later remarked: “I’ll get the death penalty here”, as authorities removed him from the scene.
The 26-year-old journalist was wanted in Belarus on extremism charges, following reporting he produced for Poland-based news service NEXTA, which broadcast footage of mass protests against Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko last year.
Protasevich stands accused of organising mass riots and inciting social hatred, allegations that he denies.
The remaining passengers onboard flight 4978 were forced to wait seven hours on the ground, before the plane finally took off again for Vilnius, Lithuania.
The move was heavily condemned by nations, organisations, and airlines around the world, with some world leaders labelling the incident as a “hijacking” or “act of piracy”, and in violation of international aviation laws.
The UN’s International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) said the Ryanair forced landing may have contravened the Chicago Convention, a core aviation treaty created after WWII.
“ICAO is strongly concerned by the apparent forced landing of a Ryanair flight and its passengers, which could be in contravention of the Chicago Convention,” it said.
“We look forward to more information being officially confirmed by the countries and operators concerned.”
Meanwhile, the International Air Transport Association said, “We strongly condemn any interference or requirement for landing of civil aviation operations that is inconsistent with the rules of international law.
“A full investigation by competent international authorities is needed.”
In light of the incident, European officials have threatened new sanctions on Belarus, including limitation of access to airspace over the nations. Lithuania has also urged the European Union and NATO to respond.
Ursula von der Leyen, the head of the EU’s executive European Commission, called for the immediate release of Protasevich, and noted that anyone responsible for “the Ryanair hijacking” must be sanctioned.
Von der Leyen added that EU leaders would meet in Brussels on Monday to discuss what action to take.
Meanwhile, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken also called for a “full investigation” of the matter, labelling the forced landing and arrest a “shocking act”, and demanded the immediate release of Protasevich.
“Given indications the forced landing was based on false pretenses, we support the earliest possible meeting of the Council of the International Civil Aviation Organization to review these events,” he said in a statement.
Similarly, US Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Bob Menendez issued a statement in conjunction with the heads of seven European parliamentary foreign affairs panels denouncing the forced landing as “an act of piracy”.
In the letter, the signatories called for a ban on all overflights of Belarus, including flights to and from the country, and for NATO and the EU to impose sanctions and suspend Belarus’ “ability to use Interpol”.