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Michael O'Leary says diversion of Ryanair plane was 'state-sponsored hijacking'

O’Leary also said it appears there were some KGB agents on board the flight.

Ryanair Chief Executive Officer Michael O'Leary
Ryanair Chief Executive Officer Michael O'Leary
Image: PA

MICHAEL O’LEARY HAS said the forced diversion of a Ryanair flight to Belarus was a “state-sponsored hijacking”.

Belarus forcing a passenger plane carrying a wanted opposition activist to divert and land in its capital has provoked a furious outcry from world leaders who described it as an “act of state terrorism”.

Journalist Roman Protasevich (26) was detained on Sunday after Ryanair flight FR4978 was pulled from its Athens-to-Vilnius route and — accompanied by a Belarusian fighter jet — diverted to the capital city.

Ryanair CEO O’Leary today said it appears there were some KGB agents on board the flight.

Speaking on Newstalk Breakfast, O’Leary said: “I think it’s the first time it’ has happened to a European airline. It was a state-sponsored hijacking, it was state-sponsored piracy.

“I can’t say much about it because the EU authorities and NATO are dealing with it at the moment.”

He added: “It appears the intent of the authorities was to remove a journalist and his travelling companion. We believe there were some KGB agents offloaded at the airport as well.”

O’Leary said the incident was “very frightening” for passengers and crew members who were held under armed guard and had their bags searched.

“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 added.

Ryanair released a statement on the incident last night. However, the statement fails to mention that five or six people didn’t get back on the plane: Protasevich and his girlfriend, who were detained, and others who people suspect were KGB secret service agents.

It states: “The crew on a Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius today (23 May) were notified by Belarus ATC of a potential security threat on board and were instructed to divert to the nearest airport, Minsk.

“The aircraft landed safely and passengers were offloaded while security checks were completed by local authorities.

“Nothing untoward was found and authorities cleared the aircraft to depart together with passengers and crew after approx. 7hrs on the ground in Minsk.”

The company added that is “has notified the relevant national and European safety and security agencies and we apologise sincerely to all affected passengers for this regrettable delay, which was outside Ryanair’s control”.

In an updated statement this afternoon. O’Leary said Ryanair is working closely with NATO and the EU. 

It reads: “Ryanair condemns the unlawful action of Belarusian authorities who diverted Ryanair’s flight FR4978 to Minsk yesterday, which was an act of aviation piracy. 

“This is now being dealt with by EU safety and security agencies and NATO. Ryanair is fully cooperating with them and we cannot comment further for security reasons.”

Possible Russian involvement 

Speaking on RTÉ’s Morning Ireland today, Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney said it’s not yet clear if Russia was involved.

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“I don’t know for sure but what we do know is when the plane land either five or six people [didn't get back on].

“Only one or two people were actually arrested so that certainly would suggest that a number of the other people who left the plane were secret service. We don’t know from what country, but clearly linked to the Belarusian regime.”

Coveney called the incident “effectively a state kidnapping” and “aviation piracy”. He said there needs to be a “very clear signal from European leaders” that what happened is not acceptable.

“There needs to be an independent and international inquiry into what happened, but in advance of that I think there needs to be a very clear signal from European leaders, as soon as this evening, that this is something that simply can’t be tolerated.”

With reporting by Garreth MacNamee

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Órla Ryan

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