Greece’s Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis stated on Thursday that there is no evidence of spies onboard the Ryanair flight that was forced to land in Minsk on Sunday.
“We have absolutely no indication that any KGB agent or other agents were on the flight. Absolutely none. Zero indication,” Mitsotakis told German newspaper Bild in a recent interview. Mitsotakis was responding to questions concerning the forced landing of the commercial passenger flight.
On Sunday, Ryanair flight FR4978, originating from Athens bound for Vilnius, Lithuania traveled through Belarus airspace. The flight, which had departed with 126 passengers, was forced to divert to Minsk after Belarus air traffic control personnel falsely told the flight crew that there was a bomb onboard their aircraft.
Controllers then ordered the plane to land at the Minsk airport. The plane was escorted along its descent by a Belarusian MiG-29 fighter jet, issuing a “general emergency” on the transponder code. Following the landing and inspection of baggage and passengers, the flight continued to its final destination of Vilinius, with 121 passengers.
Five passengers did not arrive at their destination in Lithuania.
Two of the five passengers were identified as Roman Protasevich, a 26-year-old journalist, and Sophia Sapega, a 23-year-old Belarus university student. The identity of three other men has not been confirmed.
It has been rumored that two were Russian agents. The fifth passenger was a Greek man traveling to visit his spouse. He was interviewed by Greek Reporter.
Mitsotakis: Belarus Spy Theories Not Confirmed
The Prime Minister stated “I have read many, interesting, theories about spies. None of them have been confirmed.”
“We know that Protasevich and his partner were here on vacation,” Mitsotakis said. “We know they accompanied the opposition leader, who was here for the Delphi Economic Forum, and we have absolutely no evidence that any agent boarded the flight, or that they were following him, or that he was harassed.
“This was an act of state hijacking,” the Prime Minister said. “An order was issued by the Belarussian government to pretend that there was a bomb on the flight as the plane was flying over Belarusian airspace and the plane was forced to land in Minsk with the sole aim of detaining Protasevich.
“Therefore, we know exactly what happened and we also know what did not happen,” he stated.
The European Union agreed Monday to impose sanctions on Belarus, including banning its airlines from using the airspace and airports of the 27-nation bloc, amid fury over the forced diversion of the passenger jet to arrest an opposition journalist.
Reacting to what EU leaders called a “hijacking” of the Ryanair jetliner, they also demanded the immediate release of Protasevich, a dissident journalist who has criticized Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko.
Significant Economic Consequences for Belarus
“I think we have sent an important message that this kind of behavior will not be tolerated and that the regime will suffer significant economic consequences for what it has done,” Mitsotakis added. He said he had placed a great deal of pressure on the Council to toughen sanctions. He said “it was obvious that the plane left Athens. There were Greek passengers. Human lives were in danger.
“We should not forget Roman and Sophia in a week or a month,” Mitsotakis said. “We need to know exactly what happened and we need to keep up the pressure and make it clear,” he said.
“European leaders have the obligation to try to free Roman and his partner,” Mitsotakis declared. “Roman is not alone. There are others.”
A brief video clip of Protasevich was shown on Belarusian state television Monday night, one day after he was removed from the Ryanair flight.
Sitting at a table with his hands folded in front of him and speaking rapidly, Protasevich said he was in satisfactory health and said his treatment in custody was “maximally correct and according to law.” He added that he was giving evidence to investigators about organizing mass disturbances.
So Who Is Roman Protasevich?
Protasevich is a dissident and critic of Lukashenko and the government. He helped found and edit a site called Nexta on Telegram, a social media platform used by government opposition members. Protasevich left Belarus in 2019 and has been living in exile in Lithuania. He was returning there from a meeting with Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya.
Last year’s widespread protests in Belarus were connected to NEXTA, which published videos and photos from the protests and served as the movement’s virtual headquarters. Police met protesters with such violence that it led to nearly universal condemnation.
Reports from onboard the flight state that Protacevich panicked when he realized the plane would land in Minsk. A Lithuanian passenger, named only as Mantas, told the 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.’”
Lukashenko in Power Following Disputed Election
The President of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, has ruled the country as an authoritarian leader for almost three decades. Last summer he declared victory in a highly disputed election. He cracked down on peaceful protests against his regime for weeks at that time.
Tsikhanouskaya called on the International Civil Aviation Organization to begin an investigation after this week’s air outrage. “It is absolutely obvious that this is an operation by the special services to hijack an aircraft in order to detain activist and blogger Roman Protasevich,” she said in a statement.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken called the incident “shocking” and accused Lukashenko’s government of endangering the lives of those aboard the aircraft, some of them Americans. He called for the release of Protasevich and for the Council of the ICAO to review the incident.