September 29, 2022

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

KENZO TRIBOUILLARD | AFP | Getty Images

LONDON – Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary said Monday the Belarusian authorities’ decision to divert a plane flying over its territory and the subsequent arrest of a journalist aboard the plane was a “state sponsored piracy” operation.

“This was a case of government sponsored kidnapping … government sponsored piracy,” O’Leary told Irish Newstalk Radio, adding that the incident was likely the first of its kind for a European airline.

“It appears that the authorities’ intention was to remove a journalist and his travel companion. We believe that some KGB agents were also unloaded at the airport,” he said.

Belarus on Sunday ordered its military to crawl a fighter plane to force a Ryanair plane flying in Lithuania to change course and land in its capital, citing a potential security threat on board. State media in Belarus said President Alexander Lukashenko personally gave the order.

CNBC contacted the Belarus Ministry of Foreign Affairs on Monday for comment but has yet to receive a response.

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

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

The European Union has also called for the immediate release of Protasevich and announced that it will discuss the appropriate measures.

The US reiterated its call for Protasevich’s immediate release and condemned the “forced diversion” of the flight.