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Ryanair Flight 4978, a Boeing 737 with the low-cost airline’s blue and yellow badge, had been flying for two hours on Sunday, practically on a straight shot north of Athens, when the plane suddenly plunged southeast, according to passengers on board.
The flight was about to fly to Lithuania, just a few minutes from its destination in Vilnius. But from the cockpit, the pilots said there was a new plan: the plane would make an emergency landing in Minsk, the capital of Belarus.
It was the last announcement passengers would hear before they unexpectedly found themselves on the ground for seven hours, effectively being held hostage in what EU leaders would soon refer to as a state-sponsored “kidnapping”. The incident would condemn governments around the world and spark a tense confrontation between the EU and neighboring Belarus.
When the cockpit fell silent, many of the 171 passengers on board feared that something was wrong with the plane, while others, according to two people, suspected a technical problem at Vilnius Airport Passengers interviewed by POLITICO.
But one passenger knew something else and was even more frightened than the others.
“A man stands behind me and says he wants to speak to the steward,” said Raselle, a Lithuanian who lives in Greece and has traveled to a family. “He was shocked and scared.”
The scared man was Roman Protasevich, A 26-year-old Belarusian political opposition activist and journalist. He was also the enemy of the country’s dictator, Alexander Lukashenko.
“Do not do that. You will kill me. I’m a refugee, ”Protasevic pleaded in vain to the cabin crew, as did other Belarusian passengers who later described the scene. A flight attendant quoted “legal agreements” when telling Protasevich that the crew had no choice but to land, according to Raselle, who only gave her first name and said she was afraid of the Belarusian authorities.
Nikos Petalis, who lives in Lithuania and was returning from holidays in Greece, said passengers other than Protasevich were calm.
“When we were about to arrive in Vilnius, they told us that we would have to change our destination and make an emergency landing in Minsk without giving us an explanation,” said Petalis. “They said we will know more about it as soon as we get there.”
In Minsk, passengers were removed from the plane in groups of five while dogs sniffed at them and their bags and were placed on a bus, where they waited for about an hour before finally being taken to the terminal for further control.
“Roman was with us and when we got there they took him and his girlfriend,” said Raselle. “Everything is very discreet. He was very calm, did not yell, he followed them and somehow accepted his fate. “
For the passengers, the next seven hours were uncomfortable to say the least.
“The Belarusian authorities treated us like prisoners, we were on the bus for so many hours, then at the airport for hours without being able to go to the toilet or water to show that they were really looking for something. when they just wanted the guy, “said Raselle. “It was a circus, a fiasco.”
Although the Belarusian authorities have a good reputation, some passengers took photos and videos with their cell phones.
“I recorded videos of almost everything and put them online, even though they waved us to close the cameras,” said Raselle. “The Lithuanians and Belarusians knew they had to act, the authorities took some of their phones and checked that they had something and deleted it.”