Passengers on board a Ryanair flight that was suddenly diverted as it began its descent into Vilnius, Lithuania, on Sunday, May 23, have described their fear and panic as the plane changed course with no explanation.
Flight FR4978 was bound for Lithuania from Greece when it was forced to switch direction for the Belarusian capital Minsk so the authorities there could arrest dissident journalist, Roman Protasevich, 26. read HERE
Protasevich, pictured above, is a former editor of media Nexta, a media operation with a Telegram channel. He left Belarus in 2019 to live in exile in Lithuania.
Protasevich was charged with terrorism and inciting riots after covering the events of the 2020 Belarus presidential election that the US and EU claim were very rigged and went against the vote of the people.
On Sunday May 23, the flight pilot announced the emergency diversion, but provided no details.
The plane was then accompanied by a fighter jet that had been scrambled by the Belarusian military to guide it to Minsk.
Passengers have now described how moments before, everything had been calm and nothing had appeared out of the ordinary until they experienced a sudden dive and feared they will crash.
“We all on the plane had panicked because we thought we were going to crash,” Lithuanian passenger Raselle Grigoryeva told broadcaster ABC News.
“This was a sudden dive, changing the altitude very drastically. It was very violent. I’ve never felt this on an airplane. Everybody was in shock,” she said.
Belarus had claimed there was a bomb threat, but the claim turned out to be false.
Another Lithuanian passenger, named only as Mantas, told Reuters news agency that the moment the pilot announced the flight was being diverted to Minsk, political dissident and activist, Protasevich stood up and opened an overhead locker containing his luggage.
“[He] took the luggage, and was trying to split things, like the computer he gave to his girlfriend,” Mantas said.
“I think he made a mistake. There were plenty of people so he could give the things to me or other passengers and not the girlfriend, who was also, I think, arrested.”
Mantas added that he witnessed security forces at Minsk airport using sniffer dogs to search Protasevich’s luggage.
Another passenger said officers had used physical force when arresting the journalist and that he appeared “super-scared”, adding: “I looked at him directly into his eyes and he was very sad.”
Passenger Edvinas Dimsa, 37, told AFP that it was clear that Protasevich was “very much afraid”. “It looked like if the window had been open, he would have jumped out of it.”
Another passenger told Lithuania’s Delfi news that while Mr Protasevich remained relatively calm, he was visibly trembling when he left the plane, with officers around him “all the time”.
“We asked him what was going on… he said: ‘The death penalty awaits me here.'”
The remaining passengers were kept at Minsk airport for hours as their luggage and paperwork were checked.
“We were eight hours there. We didn’t get any information what happened, only what we could find on the internet,” one passenger told Reuters.
Ryanair flight FR4978 finally landed in Vilnius at about 21:30.