The forced landing of a Ryanair passenger airplane by Belarusian officials was “a state-sponsored hijacking" meant to target a journalist and dissident on board, Michael O’Leary, the airline's CEO, told Politico.
Why it matters: The diversion of the plane was an attempt by Belarus President Aleksandr Lukashenko to "remove" journalist Roman Protasevich, a prominent opposition figure living in exile, O'Leary said.
- Lukashenko, known as "Europe's last dictator, has cracked down on mass protests and dissent in the wake of a fraudulent election last year.
- How European Union leaders respond to the hijacking, which O'Leary said involved Belarus KGB agents, will be a key test for the bloc's foreign policy.
Catch up quick: The plane was in Belarusian airspace headed to Lithuania when pilots were told to land in Minsk because of “a potential security threat on board," per a Ryanair statement.
- Protasevich, who reportedly told other passengers he was facing the death penalty, was arrested during the stop. No bomb was found on board.
- U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and top EU officials have demanded Protasevich's immediate release.
What he's saying: “It was clear that the intent of the Belarusian authorities was to remove a journalist and his traveling companion. We believe some KGB agents were offloaded from the aircraft as well,” O'Leary told Politico.
- “This is a case of state-sponsored hijacking, state-sponsored piracy. Our crew did a phenomenal job to get that aircraft and almost all the passengers out of Minsk after six hours.”
- “It was extremely frightening for our crew and passengers. They were held under armed guard and had their bags searched.”