More than 120 passengers departed Athens on Sunday morning expecting to land in Lithuania within three hours. But just miles from Lithuania’s border, Ryanair flight FR4978 was diverted, veering southeast to make an emergency landing in Minsk, the capital of Belarus.
“We all on the plane had panicked because we thought we were going to crash,” Raselle Grigoryeva, a 37-year-old Lithuanian on the plane, told ABC News. “This was a sudden dive, changing the altitude very drastically. It was very violent. I’ve never felt this on an airplane.”
A dissident detained
Belarusian air traffic control told Ryanair there was a bomb threat on board, but a MiG-29 fighter jet escorted the Boeing 737-800 to the ground, where a prominent Belarusian dissident journalist and his girlfriend were detained.
Roman Protasevich, 26, faces at least 12 years in prison for using his opposition blog, Nexta, to help mobilize street protests against Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko’s authoritarian rule.
Those on the plane said Protasevich appeared frightened once he realized where they were heading. He sprang into action.
One passenger said he stood up, got his luggage out of the overhead compartment and began breaking apart his computer equipment.
Others said he feared for his life.
“He just turned to people and said he was facing the death penalty,” passenger Monika Simkiene told Agence France-Presse.
Another passenger told the outlet: “He was not screaming, but it was clear that he was very much afraid. It looked like if the window had been open, he would have jumped out of it.”
According to the Instagram story of one woman aboard, Protasevich begged a flight attendant not to give him away. But the Ryanair employee told him that legally they had no choice.
When the flight landed passengers were escorted onto buses.
Erika, who asked to only use her first name to avoid attention from authorities, told The Washington Post that Protasevich was on her bus.
Authorities searched him separately, as passengers waited.
“You could see fear in his facial expression,” she said.
A Lithuanian couple asked him what was going on, to which, according to Erika, Protasevich replied, “This plane was diverted because of me, it’s all happening because of me.
"Google my name, and you’ll know who I am. And here the death penalty awaits me.”
Once the buses arrived at the airport Protasevich was taken away.
“We never saw [him] again,” Erika said.
An hours-long ordeal
For the rest of those aboard, an hours-long ordeal ensued, as airport authorities, operating in response to the supposed security threat that had grounded the airliner, searched passengers’ bodies and luggage.
“From the moment we got off the plane to the moment we were put into a waiting room, we were accompanied by people in uniforms carrying weapons," Erika said.
Another passenger, Aliona Alymova, wrote in a post on Facebook that passengers had no idea what was going on — not while the plane was turning around, not even after they disembarked. Only after connecting to airport Internet and reading media reports did they learn what was happening.
Alymova described hours in line without water or bathroom access.
A video with Alymova’s post shows official personnel on the tarmac, one leading a dog that is sniffing bags on the ground.
The Ryanair plane landed in Lithuania nearly 12 hours after its departure from Athens Monday, around 9:30 p.m. local time. According to Reuters, the Irish airline said five of the passengers remained in Minsk.
Ryanair CEO, Michael O’Leary, told the news organization he believed that in addition to Protasevich and his traveling companion, Belarusian security agents were also on the plane.
“We believe there were some KGB agents offloaded at the airport as well,” O’Leary told Ireland’s Newstalk radio on Monday, referring to the Belarus government’s intelligence agency.
The apparent display of autocratic power on the part of Lukashenko, which the Irish foreign minister called “aviation piracy,” has sparked international condemnation and accusations of state-sponsored hijacking.
Various carriers including Austrian Airlines, Singapore Airlines, Air France and Finnair announced Tuesday they would avoid Belarusian airspace. European Union leaders also barred the country’s national airline, Belavia, from flying over or landing in E.U. territory.
Mary Ilyushina and Paulina Firozi contributed to this report.