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Ryanair CEO says Belarus plane grounding was ‘state-sponsored piracy’

Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary gestures during an AFP interview at A4E aviation summit in Brussels on March 3, 2020.


LONDON — Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary on Monday said the decision by Belarusian authorities to divert a plane flying over its territory and the subsequent arrest of a journalist on board constituted “state-sponsored piracy,” adding he believed Belarusian KGB operatives were traveling on the plane.

“This was a case of state-sponsored hijacking … state-sponsored piracy,” O’Leary told Irish Newstalk radio, adding he believed the incident was likely the first of its kind for a European airline.

“It appears the intent of the authorities was to remove a journalist and his traveling companion … we believe there were some KGB agents offloaded at the airport as well,” he said.

Belarus on Sunday ordered its military to scramble a fighter jet to force a Lithuania-bound Ryanair plane to change course and land in its capital city, citing a potential security threat on board. State media in Belarus said President Alexander Lukashenko had personally given the order.

CNBC contacted the Belarusian foreign ministry for comment Monday but is yet to receive a reply.

Police arrested political activist and blogger Roman Protasevich, 26, when passengers disembarked. It was reported Protasevich’s girlfriend Sofya Sapega, a 23-year-old Russian citizen studying at the European Humanities University in Lithuania, was also detained.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said via Twitter on Sunday that the “outrageous and illegal behaviour of the regime in Belarus will have consequences,” adding those responsible “must be sanctioned.”

The European Union has also called for the immediate release of Protasevich and said it would discuss the appropriate action to take.

The U.S. echoed calls for the immediate release of Protasevich and said it condemned the “forced diversion” of the flight.

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