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US accuses 4 Belarusian officials of hacking into crash landing of Ryanair plane

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US accuses 4 Belarusian officials of hacking into crash landing of Ryanair plane

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US prosecutors in Manhattan have charged four Belarusian government officials with conspiring to hijack planes in the 2021 crash-landing of a European airliner in Minsk, where a prominent opposition journalist in board the plane was arrested.

The charge was contained in an indictment filed Thursday in federal district court.

In response to an alleged bomb threat, Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, authoritarian President of Belarus, sent a fighter jet on May 23 to intercept the Ryanair Boeing 737-800 carrying some 170 passengers from Athens to Vilnius, Lithuania – among them the journalist, Roman Protasevich. The plane’s forced descent and seizure sparked international outrage.

Credit…Reuters Television

The bomb threat was a fake, orchestrated by senior Belarusian officials who sought to detain Mr Protasevich in Minsk, the capital of Belarus, the indictment says.

The move was seen as a marker of how far Mr Lukashenko, who ruled Belarus for more than 27 years, was willing to go to crush dissent and expand his increasingly repressive rule. After jailing or scaring off most would-be opponents, he claimed easy re-election in 2020, a result widely seen as fraudulent, sparking months of mass protests.

Mr Lukashenko’s security forces violently suppressed protests and imprisoned thousands of people, drawing international condemnation. After the Ryanair hijacking led to Western sanctions, it lured thousands of mostly Afghan migrants to Belarus and urged them to enter Poland illegally, trying to create a political crisis for NATO and the Union European.

Increasingly isolated and presiding over a struggling economy, Mr Lukashenko has survived with the economic, military and diplomatic support of his main ally, Russian President Vladimir V. Putin, another antagonist of the West.

The indictment does not charge Mr. Lukashenko. He appoints Leonid Mikalaevich Churo, Director General of the National Air Navigation Authority of Belarus; his deputy, Oleg Kazyuchits; and two officers from the country’s security services whose full names were not known to prosecutors.

The defendants are based in Belarus and remain at large, authorities said. As a result, they are unlikely to appear in a courtroom in the United States to answer the charges in the foreseeable future.

According to the indictment, the defendants were essential participants in the conspiracy to hijack the Ryanair flight and force it to land.

“There were, in fact, no bombs on board the aircraft,” the indictment states. “Belarusian government authorities fabricated the threat.”

Mr Churo personally communicated the false bomb threat to staff at the Minsk air traffic control center, even before the flight took off from Athens, and ordered the control center to order the flight to divert to Minsk in response to the alleged threat, the indictment says.

He said the purpose of the plot to hijack the plane was to allow Belarusian security services to arrest Mr Protasevich and his Russian girlfriend. He was living in exile in Lithuania and was wanted by the Belarusian government.

The indictment also charges that after the crash landing, Belarusian government officials engaged in a cover-up, which included ordering Belarusian air traffic authorities to falsify incident reports regarding the hijacking of the flight, in order to conceal the fabrication of the bomb threat and the role played by Belarusian security services in the scheme.

The indictment says the defendants worked with other officials, including the senior air traffic controller at the Minsk air traffic control center.

Damian Williams, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, said in a statement that countries around the world have long cooperated to keep air travel safe.

“We pledge to hold these central players accountable in a shocking conspiracy to commit an aircraft hijacking that not only violated international standards and U.S. criminal law, but also potentially endangered the lives of four U.S. citizens and dozens of other innocent passengers on board,” Mr. Williams said.

The law under which the defendants were charged gives the federal government jurisdiction to prosecute because Americans were on board.

Mr Williams credited FBI counter-terrorism and counter-intelligence investigators for what he said was the ‘prompt and public explanation’ in the indictment of what really happened to the robbery.

Since Mr Protasevich and his girlfriend, Sofia Sapega, were arrested by Belarusian security agents, they have only been seen at a press briefing last June and in videos released by the government. In a video released shortly after his arrest, Mr Protasevich is shown confessing to helping organize “mass unrest” – a statement his friends said was made under duress.

At the press conference, Mr Protasevich, seated next to the Belarusian generals, praised Mr Lukashenko, whom he had previously called a “dictator” and compared to Hitler.

Mr. Williams announced the charges with Justice Department Michael J. Driscoll, who heads the FBI’s New York office, and New York Police Department Commissioner Keechant Sewell.

Richard Perez-Pena contributed report.

US accuses 4 Belarusian officials of hacking into crash landing of Ryanair plane

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