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U.S. charges 4 Belarusian officials with air piracy over diverting Ryanair flight

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U.S. charges 4 Belarusian officials with air piracy over diverting Ryanair flight
Security with a sniffer dog checking the luggage of passengers in front of Ryanair Flight 4978, which was forced to land in Minsk on May, 23, 2021, and security officials arrested opposition figure Roman Protasevich who was on board. U.S. prosecutors on Thursday charged four Belarusian government officials with air piracy in connection to the incident. Photo by EPA-EFE

Jan. 20 (UPI) -- New York City prosecutors on Thursday charged four Belarusian government officials with one count of aircraft piracy for their role in last summer's forced landing of a Ryanair flight for the purposes of arresting one dissident journalist.

On May 23, Ryanair Flight 4978 from Athens, Greece, to Vilnius, Lithuania, with some 170 passengers on board, including four Americans, was forced to land in Minsk after entering Belarusian airspace under the escort of a MiG-29 fighter jet in response to a purported bomb threat on board.

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Once landing in the capital, exiled dissident journalist Roman Protasevich was arrested.

The incident attracted international condemnation and new rounds of sanctions against the government of the embattled president, Alexander Lukashenko, who had been enforcing repressive actions against demonstrators and his political opposition to quell mass protests that erupted following his widely discredited election in 2020 to a sixth term.

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The indictment states the threat of a bomb was a pretext to down the plane to get access to Protasevich, a reporter critical of the Belarusian government who had been living in Lithuania and wanted by Minsk security forces on allegations of fomenting mass unrest with his reporting.

"There was, in fact, no bomb on board the aircraft," the indictment reads. "Belarusian government authorities fabricated the threat as a means to exercise control over the flight."

The indictment charges high-ranking Belarusian government aviation officials Leonid Mikalaevich Churo and Oleg Kazyuchits and Andrey Anatolievich Lnu and Fnu Lnu, state security officials, for participating in the Belarusian government's conspiracy to divert the flight and subsequent cover-up.

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Prosecutors came to the charge from evidence collected by the FBI including technical data from the flight's path, information from eyewitnesses as well as a senior air traffic controller at the Minsk Air Control Center responsible for communicating with the flight identified as ATC-1 in the indictment and audio and video recordings as well as the American passengers.

"Since the dawn of powered flight, countries around the world have cooperated to keep passenger airplanes safe," U.S. Attorney Damian Willians for the Southern District of New York said in a statement. "These defendants shattered those standards by diverting an airplane to further the improper purpose of repressing dissent and free speech."

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The indictment accuses the defendant state security officials on the morning of May 23 of informing two senior air traffic controllers that there was a bomb on a flight that would be entering Belarusian airspace and that it would need to be diverted to Minsk.

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"The flight had not yet departed Athens when Churo and Fnu Lnu visited the Minsk ACC and conveyed the purported threat," the charging document states. "Even so, the passengers on the flight were not required to disembark so that the aircraft could be searched, and the flight was allowed to leave Athens."

After the bomb threat was reported, ATC-1's supervisor prohibited them from informing Ukrainian authorities of the purported threat to ensure the plane would be downed in Minsk for the purpose of arresting Protasevich, prosecutors said.

The charging document also states that Fnu Lnu did not direct the plane via ATC-1 to land at the nearest airport as a flight is subjected to do under a credible bomb threat and was instructed to continue to the Belarusian capital, despite being approximately 174 miles away at the time and closer to several other airports.

Prosecutors also accuse the defendants of participating in a cover-up of the conspiracy that included giving false statements after the fact at press conferences and to direct staff to create false incident reports, including doctoring some to misrepresent that the bomb threat was received approximately the same time that the flight entered Belarusian airspace and omit that Fnu Lnu was present during the operations.

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"During the course of our investigation, the FBI identified a detailed operation that subjected passengers from many countries, including the U.S., to the realities of terrorist threats," said FBI Assistant Director Michael Driscoll. "Not only is what took place a reckless violation of U.S. law, it's extremely dangerous to the safety of everyone who flies in an airplane."

"The next pilot who gets a distress call from a tower may doubt the authenticity of the emergency -- which puts lives at risk," he said.

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