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Purported bomb threat Belarus cited in plane interception was sent after flight diverted, email provider says

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko addresses the parliament in Minsk on May 26, 2021. (Sergei Shelega/AP)
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MOSCOW — An email cited by Belarusian authorities containing a purported in-flight bomb threat was sent after a plane was diverted to Minsk with a prominent Belarus opposition journalist aboard, Swiss email provider ProtonMail said Thursday, further challenging the Belarusian regime's version of events.

The interception of the Ryanair flight Sunday traveling from Athens to Vilnius, Lithuania, has brought international condemnation and potential new sanctions from the European Union, which has dismissed Belarus’s bomb scare explanation for rerouting the plane.

European leaders and opposition activists have said the entire incident was orchestrated by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko to arrest 26-year-old Roman Protasevich, a journalist on board who had been in self-exile but now faces 15 years in prison in Belarus.

Who is Roman Protasevich, the dissident journalist arrested in Belarus?

ProtonMail’s statement further undercuts Belarusian claims it alerted the cockpit crew after receiving the emailed bomb threat from the Palestinian militant group Hamas. Hamas’s spokesman denied the group’s involvement.

“We haven’t seen credible evidence that the Belarusian claims are true,” ProtonMail, a privacy-focused provider, said in a statement. “We will support European authorities in their investigations upon receiving a legal request.”

A European intelligence official shared a copy of the email with The Washington Post. The time stamp on the email indicates it was sent 24 minutes after the Ryanair flight crew was ordered by Belarusian air traffic control to land in Minsk, despite the plane being much closer to Vilnius’s airport at the time.

The Daily Beast and the Dossier Center, a nonprofit organization run by the self-exiled Russian businessman Mikhail Khodorkovsky, first reported that the email was sent after the plane was told to reroute to Minsk.

“We, Hamas soldiers,” it reads, “demand that Israel cease fire in the Gaza Strip. We demand that the European Union abandon its support for Israel in this war. We know that the participants of Delphi Economic Forum are returning home on May 23 via flight FR4978. A bomb has been planted onto this aircraft. If you don’t meet our demands the bomb will explode on May 23 over Vilnius.”

What you need to know about Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko

E.U. leaders Monday barred the bloc’s airlines from flying over Belarus and blocked Belarus’s national airline, Belavia, from flying over or landing in European territory.

The Kremlin, a key ally of Lukashenko, called the punitive measures “regrettable” and “rushed.”

On Thursday, Russia took more visible steps to back Belarus, a country Moscow considers vital to its sphere of influence. Two European airlines, Air France and Austrian Airlines, said they had to cancel flights to Moscow because Russian aviation authorities failed to approve new flight paths that avoided Belarus’s airspace.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov declined to comment on the cancellations, directing queries to aviation authorities because “the presidential administration does not control air traffic.”

Lukashenko plans to meet Friday with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Sochi, a Russian Black Sea resort, in another display of Russian support.

For Belarus’s Lukashenko, Russia has been a lifeline for decades. Here’s why.

Moscow has long pushed for the two countries to form a unified state — something they agreed to in 1999 but has not been fully implemented, in part because Lukashenko has dragged his feet.

Russia issued a $1 billion loan to Belarus in December. Additional E.U. sanctions are expected to make the Belarusian economy even more dependent on Russia.

Lukashenko’s government also acknowledged that it counts on Moscow amid mounting international isolation.

“I have to say that the events of the past few days attest to the increased, absolutely unfair pressure by Western countries on Belarus, which seems to be escalating,” Belarus’s prime minister, Roman Golovchenko, told his Russian counterpart, Mikhail Mishustin, in Minsk on Thursday.

“In this situation we are counting on the support of our closest ally, the Russian Federation,” Golovchenko added.

In Warsaw, Protasevich’s parents told reporters Thursday that they have no information on his fate. Also detained was Russian national Sofia Sapega, who was traveling with Protasevich.

“We still don’t know where our son is. I’m not even talking about his relatives being allowed to visit him,” said Protasevich’s mother, Natalia. “His lawyer still hasn’t been given access to Roman.”

She said she believes her son was forced to “confess” to organizing mass riots in a disturbing video that emerged Monday and probably had been beaten while in custody given the marks on his face.

“Can you imagine what are they doing to him these behind these wall? . . . I beg, I cry for help. Please save Roman,” Natalia Protasevich said.

“I want to say to my son: Stay strong, remember that the beautiful progressive youth is looking at you, and they are proud of you, they look up to you. . . . You don’t even know how many people are writing to me and saying, ‘Your son is a hero,’ ” she added. “So stay strong.”

Khurshudyan reported from Vladivostok, Russia. Michael Birnbaum in Riga, Latvia, and Ellen Nakashima in Washington contributed to this report.