UN aviation watchdog condemns Belarus for fake Hamas bomb threat

ICAO investigation concludes that authorities in Minsk used false threat as excuse to ground plane and arrest dissident journalist, endangering airliner

The Ryanair plane carrying opposition figure Raman Pratasevich, lands at the international airport outside Vilnius, Lithuania, May 23, 2021.  (AP Photo/Mindaugas Kulbis)
The Ryanair plane carrying opposition figure Raman Pratasevich, lands at the international airport outside Vilnius, Lithuania, May 23, 2021. (AP Photo/Mindaugas Kulbis)

The United Nations agency in charge of investigating the diversion of a Ryanair flight by Belarus last year announced Tuesday it has completed its review, dismissing a claimed Hamas bomb threat as a ruse and once again pointing the finger at the “unlawful” actions carried out by Minsk.

On May 23, 2021, a Ryanair flight from Greece to Lithuania was forced to land in Minsk, with Belarusian authorities arresting dissident journalist, Roman Protasevich, and his partner, Sofia Sapega, who were on board. Belarussian authorities claimed that Hamas had threatened to blow up the plane, a claim denied by the terror group.

“The ICAO Council concluded its discussions yesterday on the May 2021 incident in Belarus airspace involving Ryanair Flight FR4978, condemning the actions of the Government of Belarus in committing an act of unlawful interference,” the International Civil Aviation Organization said in a statement.

The investigation was extended in early January to establish certain “missing facts” and examine new information.

The Montreal-based ICAO studied audio recordings of the Minsk air traffic controller who was monitoring the affected flight.

The agency said that the bomb threat used as excuse to divert the aircraft was “deliberately false and endangered its safety.”

“The threat was communicated to the flight crew upon the instructions of senior government officials of Belarus,” it added.

In this March 26, 2017 file photo, Belarus police detain journalist Raman Pratasevich, center, in Minsk, Belarus. Raman Pratasevich, a founder of a messaging app channel that has been a key information conduit for opponents of Belarus’ authoritarian president, has been arrested after an airliner in which he was riding was diverted to Belarus because of a bomb threat. . (AP Photo/Sergei Grits, File)

Ryanair said Belarusian flight controllers told the pilots there was a bomb threat against the jetliner and ordered it to land in Minsk. The Belarusian military scrambled a MiG-29 fighter jet in an apparent attempt to encourage the crew to comply with the flight controllers’ orders.

Belarus transport officials later claimed the country had received a bomb threat claiming  to be from Hamas that threatened to blow up the plane unless Israel halted military operations in Gaza. The claim was regarded as dubious as Hamas and Israel had ceased fighting two days earlier.

A screen capture of one of several emails sent to European air authorities claiming to be from members of Hamas threatening to blow up a plane, which was included in a report released by the International Civil Aviation Organization. A UN body has concluded that the threat was fake. (Screen capture)

The statement from ICAO added that the council representative of Russia — a close ally of Minsk — had “expressed his State’s strong objection to identifying Belarus as the source of the unlawful interference which took place.”

It said that the council, made up of 36 countries, had asked its president to pass the findings of the investigation on to UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.

The ICAO’s mission is to enact the rules governing global civil air transport, but it has no power to impose sanctions.

In the event of a proven violation of international rules, its role is to provide support for any countries wishing to pronounce condemnations or apply sanctions, in accordance with the Chicago Convention on International Civil Aviation, the institution said.

Last month, Sapega asked for a pardon from Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko after being sentenced to six years in prison for “inciting social hatred” and “illegal collection of personal data.”

Protasevich is currently under house arrest pending trial.

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