Transcript details a conversation between one of Belarusian Transport Ministry's air traffic controllers and a Ryanair pilot forced to land in Belarus due to what turned out to be a hoax bomb alert.
The Belarusian Transport Ministry has released a transcript of a conversation between one of its air traffic controllers and a Ryanair pilot forced to land in Belarus due to what turned out to be a hoax bomb alert.
The transcript released on Tuesday said the crew was told "you have a bomb aboard" and urged it to land in Minsk.
It differed from extracts previously publicised on Belarusian state TV and also appeared to contradict statements from Minsk airport officials.
Reuters could not immediately verify the authenticity of the transcript released on Tuesday.
Belarus used the incident, which triggered an international outcry and punitive measures against it, to arrest a dissident journalist, Roman Protasevich, who had been on board the Ryanair plane.
Pilot had no choice
The captain of the Ryanair plane had little choice but to comply, aviation experts and pilots said.
"If the interceptor directed the Ryanair flight to Minsk, then they had to land there," said John Cox, a former US Airways pilot who is now an aviation-safety consultant.
"Pilots are trained for this, and there are internationally agreed signals between the interceptor and the airliner," he said, adding that pilots carry drawings or descriptions of the intercept signals with them on every flight.
In the event of a bomb threat aboard, pilots would adhere to instructions on where to land and assume that the intercepting aircraft was there to help.
"You don't question the intention (of an interception) because the assumption is that they're there on your behalf," said one pilot at a European airline.
"It's their airspace and you don't start a discussion with a MiG-29," said another pilot, referring to the military fighter jet which Belarus scrambled to intercept Ryanair's plane.
Protasevich's Russian girlfriend is being held on suspicion of crimes at the time of protests last year, Moscow said on Tuesday.
Sofia Sapega, a 23-year-old law student at the European Humanities University (EHU) in Lithuania, was detained along with Protasevich on Sunday.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova said in a statement on Tuesday that Sapega was being held on suspicion of "committing crimes" between August and September 2020.
That period corresponds with the outbreak of mass anti-government protests that rocked ex-Soviet Belarus after a disputed presidential election in August last year.
The charges against Sapega were not specified, but Zakharova said they are covered by several articles of the Belarusian criminal code.
Protasevich fled to Europe in 2019 from where he co-ran the Nexta Telegram channels, a key Belarus opposition media that helped mobilise protesters.
A video released overnight showed 26-year-old Roman Protasevich confessing to having organised anti-government demonstrations, an offence in Belarus punishable by up to 15 years in jail.
"I can state that I don't have any health issues, including diseases of the heart or any other organs. Police officers are treating me properly and according to the law," he says.
"Also, I now continue to cooperate with the investigation and have confessed to organising mass protests in Minsk."
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the video made for "distressing viewing" and Belarus would face consequences.
The video of Roman Protasevich makes for deeply distressing viewing.— Boris Johnson (@BorisJohnson) May 25, 2021
As a journalist and a passionate believer in freedom of speech I call for his immediate release.
Belarus' actions will have consequences.
Exiled opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya said it proved Protasevich had been tortured.
"He said that he was treated lawfully, but he's clearly beaten and under pressure. There is no doubt that he was tortured. He was taken hostage," she told a news conference in the Lithuanian capital Vilnius.
Belarus did not immediately comment on the torture allegation but has consistently denied abusing detainees.
Rights groups have documented hundreds of cases of what they describe as abuse and forced confessions during a crackdown on pro-democracy activists since last year.
In response to Minsk's actions, the European air traffic control agency, Eurocontrol, recommended that EU and British carriers that fly over Belarus should re-route via the Baltic states.
European Union leaders at a summit on Monday called for airlines based in the 27-member bloc to halt flights over Belarusian airspace, which is along a major corridor connecting Europe and Asia and earns hard currency from overflight rights.
Lufthansa, KLM, SAS, Air France, LOT and Singapore Airlines were among carriers that announced they would stop flying over Belarus.
The EU leaders also directed officials to draw up unspecified new sanctions against Belarus, and to work out a way to ban Belarusian airlines from the bloc's skies.
Belarus's neighbour, Ukraine, also announced a ban on flights to or from Belarus, and on its own airlines using Belarusian airspace.
That could mean land-locked Belarus could soon be reached by air only over its eastern border with close ally Russia.
"If we let this go, tomorrow Alexander Lukashenko will go further and do something even more arrogant, more cruel," Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said in a statement.
The UN agency ICAO has said the incident may have violated the foundational treaty governing international civil aviation, the 1944 Chicago Convention.
Belarusian state media have reported that Lukashenko personally ordered the flight to be intercepted.
Belarus says it was responding to a bomb scare that later proved to be a false alarm.
Protasevich, Sapega and three other people disembarked the flight in Minsk, suspected by Western countries of being spies involved in the operation. They were interviewed on Belarus state TV, which identified them as two Belarusians and a Greek.
All three said they had asked to disembark because they planned to travel to Minsk anyway once the plane reached Vilnius.