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Belarusian officials charged with air piracy over diverted flight

By Simon Druker
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Belarusian officials charged with air piracy over diverted flight
A handout photo shows security with a sniffer dog checking the luggage of passengers in front of Ryanair 4978 in Minsk, Belarus in May. On Thursday, four Belarusian officials were charged with air piracy related to the flight's diversion. The Justice Department says the men orchestrated the fake bomb plot in order to arrest a dissident journalist. Handout photo by Onliner.by/EPA-EFE 

Jan. 20 (UPI) -- Four Belarusian officials were charged Thursday with conspiracy to commit aircraft piracy, according to the Justice Department.

A federal grand jury in New York indicted the four men, who are accused of orchestrating the diversion of a Ryanair flight in May.

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Leonid Mikalaevich Churo, Oleg Kazyuchits, Andrey Anatolievich Lnu and Fnu Lnu are all named in the court documents.

None of the men is currently in custody but the Justice Department said, "the United States looks forward to working with our foreign partners to bring them to justice."

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Flight 4978 was carrying four U.S. citizens and more than 100 other passengers on its way from Greece to Lithuania when it was forced to land in the Belarusian capital, Minsk, on May 23. At the time, Belarusian aviation authorities cited a bomb threat as the reason for the diversion. But the White House later said it was diverted over "false pretenses," after Belarusian journalist Raman Pratasevich was arrested upon landing.

"We allege the defendants carried out an elaborate scheme to fake a bomb scare which forced an airplane to make an emergency landing in their country so they could arrest a dissident journalist," said FBI New York Field Office Assistant Director Michael J. Driscoll.

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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 terroristic threats. 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. The FBI and our foreign partners will continue to hold perpetrators responsible for actions which directly threaten the lives of our U.S. citizens and jeopardize the stability of our national security."

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The conspiring to commit aircraft piracy charge carries a minimum sentence of 20 years and maximum statutory penalty of life.

The Justice Department also accuses the four men of attempting to orchestrate a coverup.

The case was jointly investigated by the FBI's New York Field Office, Counterintelligence Division Foreign Influence Task Force and the New York Joint Terrorism Task Force.

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In May, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko confirmed via Telegram that he gave the order for the Ryanair flight to land in Minsk while being escorted by a MiG-29 fighter jet.

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