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US presses criminal charges against Belarusians involved in alleged state-sponsored hijacking of flight with activist on board

(NEW YORK) — Belarus fabricated a bomb scare aboard a Ryanair passenger plane last year to force it to land so it could arrest dissident journalist Roman Protasevich, federal prosecutors in New York said Thursday as they charged four Belarusian officials with conspiracy to commit aircraft piracy.

Ryanair flight 4978, carrying 126 passengers, including four Americans, was headed to Vilnius from Athens on May 23. When it flew over Belarusian airspace, controllers told the pilots they had received word of a bomb aboard, according to prosecutors. A MiG-29 was sent to escort the plane to Minsk National Airport.

The episode prompted international outrage and Ryanair accused Belarus of state-sponsored hijacking.

At the time, Julie Fisher, the U.S. ambassador to Belarus who is based in Vilnius, said the diversion of the flight was “dangerous and abhorrent,” saying it showed Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko’s contempt for the international community.

Leonid Mikalaevich Churo, the director general of the state air navigation authority; his deputy, Oleg Kazyuchits, and two officers of the state security services, Andrey Anatolievich Lnu and Fnu Lnu, are all in Belarus and remain at large. Prosecutors called them “critical participants” in the alleged conspiracy.

“Belarusian government authorities fabricated the threat as a means to exercise control over the Flight and force it to divert from its course toward the original destination of Vilnius, and instead land in Minsk. The purpose of the Belarusian government’s plot diverting the Flight to Minsk was so that Belarusian security services could arrest a Belarusian journalist and political activist,” according to the indictment.

Churo personally communicated the false bomb threat to staff at the Minsk air traffic control center and directed controllers to instruct the flight to divert, the indictment reads.

Kazyuchits directed air traffic authorities to falsify incident reports, according to the indictment.

“Since the dawn of powered flight, countries around the world have cooperated to keep passenger airplanes safe. The defendants shattered those standards by diverting an airplane to further the improper purpose of repressing dissent and free speech,” U.S. Attorney Damian Williams said in a statement.

Once the flight landed in Minsk it was met by Belarusian security services personnel, including individuals dressed in camouflage military-style uniforms, some of whom were wearing ski masks and carrying visible firearms and supervised by Fnu Lnu, the indictment said.

The cover-up began almost immediately, prosecutors said. In a press conference the following day, Churo said the Belarusian authorities had “done everything according to their technology and their job responsibilities” in handling the flight. “In reality, Churo knew that he and his co-conspirators had contrived the false bomb threat and had directed the Flight to divert to Minsk so that Belarusian security services could arrest [Pratasevich] and [his girlfriend],” the indictment said.

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