Passengers — among them a Greek national — described the scene inside the Ryanair flight that was ordered by Belarus to change course and land in Minsk on Sunday.
Flight FR4978 took off from Athens and was nearing its final destination of Vilnius, Lithuania when it was suddenly forced to divert to Minsk.
The plane was accompanied by a Russian MiG fighter jet that had been scrambled to guide it to the Belarusian capital.
Soon after its arrival, Belarus arrested one of the passengers — the dissident journalist Roman Protasevich.
Iasonas Zisis, who boarded the plane in Athens, said he was visiting his wife, a Belarusian national, and was scheduled to grab a Belavia connection flight from Vilnius at 8:37 p.m. on the same day.
Asked about the arrest of Pratasevich, a key foe of authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko who was on the same flight, Zisis said, “I saw him, but I did not know who or what he was.”
He said he did not witness Pratasevich and his girlfriend being arrested as he had moved along the line when the incident occurred.
The Greek national said that he asked the airport officials to disembark in Minsk, which in any case, was his final destination. His request was granted.
“We thought the plane would crash over Belarus”
The plane was flying over Belarus and had started making its gradual descent to Vilnius, before it abruptly changed course.
“We all on the plane had panicked because we thought we were going to crash,” Lithuanian passenger Raselle Grigoryeva told broadcaster ABC News.
“This was a sudden dive, changing the altitude very drastically. It was very violent. I’ve never felt this on an airplane. Everybody was in shock,” she said.
It would be 15 minutes before the captain gave any sort of explanation about the plane’s course over the intercom: they were being diverted east, to Minsk.
A Lithuanian passenger, named only as Mantas, told Reuters news agency that the moment the pilot announced the diversion, Protasevich stood up and opened an overhead locker containing his luggage.
“(He) took the luggage, and was trying to split things, like the computer he gave to his girlfriend,” Mantas said. “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.”
An unnamed passenger told Delfi that Protasevich was visibly trembling when he left the plane, with officers around him “all the time.”
“We asked him what was going on… he said: ‘The death penalty awaits me here.'”
Others described how Protasevich had immediately identified himself to officers, who then appeared to confiscate his passport.
His luggage was checked with sniffer dogs, according to Mantas, before he was escorted to the airport terminal.
The remaining passengers were kept at the Minsk airport for hours as their luggage and paperwork were checked.
Soon afterward, the plane and its remaining passengers resumed their journey to Vilnius, and finally arrived at 6:26 GMT.