Belarus Ryanair flight diverted: Passengers describe panic on board

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Media caption,

Ryanair boss Michael O'Leary claims there were KGB security agents on the flight.

Passengers on board a Ryanair flight from Athens have described their panic after they changed course on Sunday with no explanation.

Flight FR4978 was nearing its final destination of Vilnius, Lithuania when it was suddenly forced to divert to Minsk.

The plane was accompanied by a fighter jet that had been scrambled to guide it to the Belarusian capital.

Soon after its arrival, Belarus arrested one of the passengers - a dissident journalist called Roman Protasevich.

Belarus has said the plane was diverted because of a bomb threat onboard. But after a search in Minsk, no explosives were found on the flight.

A sudden dive and fears of a crash

In the moments before all of this erupted, those onboard said everything had been calm and nothing appeared out of the ordinary.

The plane was flying over Belarus and had started making its gradual descent to Vilnius.

Suddenly, the flight made an abrupt change of course, with no explanation from the captain.

"We all on the plane had panicked because we thought we were going to crash," Lithuanian passenger Raselle Grigoryeva told broadcaster ABC News.

"This was a sudden dive, changing the altitude very drastically. It was very violent. I've never felt this on an airplane. Everybody was in shock," she said.

It would be 15 minutes before the captain gave any sort of explanation over the intercom: they were being diverted east, to Minsk.

Journalist Protasevich 'scared' and 'trembling'

One person on the flight seemed especially panicked: Roman Protasevich.

The 26-year-old is a former editor of Nexta, a media operation with a Telegram channel. He left Belarus in 2019 to live in exile in Lithuania. From there he covered the events of the 2020 Belarus presidential election, after which he was charged with terrorism and inciting riots.

A Lithuanian passenger, named only as Mantas, told Reuters news agency that the moment the pilot announced the diversion, Mr 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."

Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
Lithuanian passenger Mantas (centre, front) said Mr Protasevich "made a mistake" giving his laptop to his girlfriend

After they touched down in Belarus, the plane was surrounded by Belarusian officials, fire crews and airport workers.

By this time, passengers were still unaware of the alleged bomb threat. One of those onboard, Saulius Danauskas, told news outlet Delfi that, in retrospect, it was clear the threat was some kind of ruse.

"People were standing around the plane doing nothing, looking pleased with themselves" said Mr Danauskas.

"They didn't let us out for half an hour," he added. "If there was a bomb on the plane, why would they not let us out?".

Those onboard were later told to descend in groups of five with their luggage, which was checked by officials.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Mr Protasevich was charged with terrorism and inciting riots after covering the events of the 2020 Belarus presidential election (file photo)

An unnamed passenger told Delfi that Mr Protasevich was 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.'"

Others described how Mr Protasevich had immediately identified himself to officers, who then appeared to confiscate his passport.

Mr Protasevich's luggage was checked with sniffer dogs, according to Mantas, before he was escorted to the airport terminal.

Another passenger told Reuters news agency that officers had used physical force when arresting the journalist, and that Mr Protasevich appeared "super-scared".

"I looked at him directly into his eyes and he was very sad," the passenger said.

Passengers held in Minsk for hours without info

The remaining passengers were kept at Minsk airport for hours as their luggage and paperwork were checked.

Some only learned about the bomb threat after searching for information on the internet.

"There was no clear understanding of what was going on," said one passenger, Alyona Alymova, in a Facebook post.

Image caption,
Supporters of Mr Protasevich await him at Vilnius airport with a sign reading: "I am, we are Roman Protasevich"

Soon afterwards, the plane and its remaining passengers resumed their journey to Vilnius, and finally arrived at 18:26 GMT.

"I want to see who will be responsible for this chaos," said one passenger in an Instagram post.