On June 3, the Belarusian state news agency Belta published a story on a documentary by the state-owned ONT TV channel about the diversion of Ryanair Flight 4978 to Minsk airport on May 23.
The Athens-to-Vilnius flight was compelled to land at Minsk International Airport, where authorities arrested Belarusian opposition journalist Raman Pratasevich and his girlfriend Sofia Sapega, a Russian citizen. After the arrests, the plane was allowed to continue on to its original destination in Lithuania.
While European governments and the airline’s owner condemned the incident as an act of air piracy, the Belarusian government justified the diversion by claiming a bomb threat connected to the Palestinian militant group Hamas had been sent to Minsk airport authorities, who then relayed the information to the flight’s pilots.
An earlier Polygraph.info fact check dealt with claims that Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko had personally ordered that a MiG-29 fighter jet be scrambled to escort the plane, out of concern for the passengers’ “safety.”
The new Belta article attempts to refresh the initial story by omitting any reference to the MiG-29 fighter and the fact that the Ryanair flight was actually closer to Vilnius and had to go out of its way to land in Minsk.
The article claims that negotiations between the pilot and Minsk air traffic control lasted roughly 15 minutes, and quotes the Belarusian air force and air defense commander, Igor Golub:
“During those 14 minutes, the plane almost reached Lida, just over 25km away from the state border, and about 78km from the airport in Vilnius. The Boeing 737 was traveling at a speed of 900 km/h. Simple math: an aircraft covers 15km in one minute, and it would have needed two minutes to cross the state border into the Lithuanian airspace.
“The pilot-in-command however decided to make a turn and head to Minsk. No one forced him to do this, no one gave him such a command. There were only recommendations. He could have decided to keep going and left the Belarusian airspace within two minutes.”
That is false.