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No evidence of bomb threat Belarus used to justify diverting airliner, UN agency says

Belarus has failed to produce any evidence of a bomb threat that was used to justify the diversion of an airliner to Minsk — and which led to the arrest of a dissident journalist — according to UN investigators.

Forced landing led to arrest of journalist Roman Protasevich, prompting international outcry

Police detain journalist Roman Protasevich, centre, in Minsk, Belarus, on March 26, 2021, after the flight he was on was diverted by a warplane and forced to land. Belarus claimed there had been a bomb threat against the plane. The UN aviation agency says it found no evidence to support that claim. (Sergei Grits/The Associated Press)

Belarus has failed to produce any evidence of a bomb threat that was used to justify the diversion of an airliner to Minsk — which then led to the arrest of a dissident journalist — according to the United Nations aviation agency. 

In a 62-page report released Tuesday, the International Civil Aviation Organization's fact-finding mission called the bomb threat "deliberately false," though it added it did not have enough information to say who was behind the affair.

Ryanair Flight 4978 had been bound from Athens to Lithuania on May 23, 2021, when a Belarusian fighter jet forced it to divert and land in Minsk. Authorities then arrested journalist Roman Protasevich and his girlfriend, who were on board. 

The incident caused international outrage against Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko — whose disdain for democratic norms and human rights has made his country a pariah in the West. 

Belarusian state media reported at the time that Lukashenko personally ordered the flight to be intercepted.

Countries including Canada condemned Belarus and mulled sanctions, while also recommending their airlines avoid the country's airspace. 

Ryanair Flight 4978 had been bound from Athens to Lithuania when a Belarusian fighter jet forced it to land in Minsk. (Mindaugas Kulbis/The Associated Press)

The ICAO's team said Belarusian authorities claimed to have received two identical emails from the militant group Hamas alerting them to a bomb.

"We, Hamas soldiers, demand that Israel cease fire in the Gaza Strip," a transcript of the note in ICAO's report reads.

"We demand that the European Union abandon its support for Israel in this war. We know that the participants of Delphi Economic Forum are returning home on May 23 via flight FR4978. A bomb was planted onto this aircraft. If you don't meet our demands the bomb will explode on May 23 over Vilnius. Allahu Akbar."

But the ICAO never saw the first message as it was received by Belarus in its original formatting. It was only able to verify the existence of both emails as other airports in nearby countries received them as well. 

"The receipt of the first email is crucial to explain the basis for the communication of the bomb threat," the ICAO report said, as Belarus said it got the first note at 9:25 a.m. GMT, and started communicating with the flight crew five minutes later. The second arrived at 9:56 a.m. 

Belarusian authorities said the original emails were deleted because of their data retention policy.

Similarly, the team was unable to view some of the surveillance video footage from Minsk after the plane made its forced landing, which Belarus blamed on "length of time that had passed." 

The report's language suggests the explanation is unsatisfactory, considering "criminal and other investigations" into the events had been initiated.

The ICAO was also unable to interview a Minsk air traffic controller who had been in contact with the Ryanair flight that day. Belarus said the employee had not shown up for work after his summer leave, and authorities were unable to contact him or establish his whereabouts. 

It also noted that inspections of the flight in Athens, Minsk and Lithuania — where the plane did arrive after its forced detour — did not produce a bomb.

The aviation agency has submitted its report to its 36 Council member countries, which are supposed to meet at the end of the month to discuss further action.

CBC News has reached out to the federal government for comment. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Raffy Boudjikanian

Senior reporter

Raffy Boudjikanian is a senior reporter with the CBC's Parliamentary Bureau in Ottawa. He has also worked in Edmonton, Calgary and Montreal for the public broadcaster.

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