Ryanair CEO Says KGB Agents on Board Plane 'Hijacked' by Belarus

The CEO of Irish airline Ryanair said he believed KGB agents were onboard the Lithuania-bound flight that was controversially diverted to Belarus, resulting in the arrest of an opposition journalist.

Journalist and activist Roman Protasevich, 26, was apprehended following the plane's landing in Minsk on Sunday. Protasevich—who was based in Lithuania—previously worked for Telegram channel NEXTA, which broadcast news and footage from the widespread protests that erupted following Belarus' August 2020 election. He currently works for Telegram channel Belamova.

Ryanair's initial statement, issued on Sunday, said the diversion was due to a "potential security threat on board," but that "nothing untoward was found" and authorities cleared the plane to "depart together with passengers and crew." The first press release did not mention Protasevich.

However, the airline's CEO Michael O'Leary on Monday called it a "state-sponsored hijacking" during his appearance on Newstalk radio.

"This was a case of state-sponsored hijacking... state-sponsored piracy," he said.

O'Leary went on to say: "It appears the intent of the authorities was to remove a journalist and his traveling companion... we believe there were some KGB agents offloaded at the airport as well."

Ryanair's CEO said the incident was "very frightening" for all those on board. They were held by armed guards and their bags were searched, he said.

"We're debriefing our crew, who did a phenomenal job to get that aircraft and almost all the passengers out of Minsk after six hours," he said.

O'Leary said Ryanair is looking to guidance from European authorities amid calls for flights over Belarus to be banned. He added replacement trajectories over Poland would be "very minor adjustment," as the airline does not fly over Belarus often.

In an emailed statement to Newsweek, Ryanair said it "condemns the unlawful actions of Belarusian authorities who diverted Ryanair's flight FR4978 to Minsk yesterday (23 May), which was an act of aviation piracy."

"This is now being dealt with by EU safety and security agencies & NATO," the airline said. "Ryanair is fully cooperating with them and we cannot comment further for security reasons."

The outrageous and illegal behaviour of the regime in Belarus will have consequences.

Those responsible for the #Ryanair hijacking must be sanctioned.

Journalist Roman Protasevich must be released immediately.

EUCO will discuss tomorrow action to take.

— Ursula von der Leyen (@vonderleyen) May 23, 2021

Ireland's Minister of Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney, also appearing on Newstalk, said the plane was "effectively ordered" to land in Minsk, adding: "Five or six people left the plane, but only one of them was arrested, which would suggest the others were secret service people."

Coveney also urged the European Union to "respond firmly and directly," stating Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko has "no democratic legitimacy."

The Ryanair flight's grounding and Protasevich's subsequent arrest has elicited international outrage. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken called for the journalist's "immediate release" and condemned the Belarusian government's "ongoing harassment and arbitrary detention of journalists."

"This shocking act perpetrated by the Lukashenka regime endangered the lives of more than 120 passengers, including U.S. citizens," Blinken said in a statement.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen warned the "outrageous and illegal behavior" by the Belarusian regime "will have consequences."

"Those responsible for the #Ryanair hijacking must be sanctioned," she tweeted. "Journalist Roman Protasevich must be released immediately."

Von der Leyen said the European Commission plans to discuss "action to take" on Monday.

Protester holds "Where is Roman?" sign
A woman stands with a sign in the arrival area of Vilnius International Airport on May 23, 2021, as passengers disembark from a Ryanair passenger plane that was intercepted and diverted to Minsk on the same day by Belarus authorities. PETRAS MALUKAS/AFP via Getty Images