Belarus plane arrest - is it a first?

By Claudia Allen
BBC News

  • Published
Media caption,

Roman Protasevich's father tells the BBC he is fearful his son may be tortured

The forced diversion of a Ryanair passenger plane to Belarus's capital Minsk on Sunday, and the arrest of a dissident journalist on board, have caused outrage elsewhere in Europe.

The civilian aircraft was flying from Greece to Lithuania, passing through Belarus's airspace, when Belarus sent a fighter jet to intercept it, claiming there was a bomb threat.

The pilots of the Ryanair flight were obliged to follow the instructions of the military plane.

The events have been condemned by the EU and the US. But has a similar intercept happened before?

Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova accused Western countries of hypocrisy, saying (in Russian) that nations "had reacted differently to similar events which took place in other countries earlier".

She referred particularly to an incident eight years ago involving the plane of Bolivia's then-President Evo Morales.

Here's a look back at previous incidents where planes may - or may not - have been forced to land.

2013: Bolivian president's plane lands in Vienna

In July 2013 Evo Morales was flying back to Bolivia from a summit in Moscow, when his jet had to divert to Vienna airport in Austria after several other European countries apparently refused it permission to enter their airspace.

Bolivia said that there had been a "huge lie" that US intelligence leaker Edward Snowden - at that time holed up in a Moscow airport - was on board the presidential aircraft.

France later apologised to the Bolivian government for the "late confirmation of permission" to enter French airspace, blaming "conflicting information".

Image caption,
President Evo Morales was forced to make an unscheduled stop in Vienna

However, the analogy to Sunday's incident in Belarus is not perfect, as Mr Morales's plane was not intercepted by fighter jets and forced to land - it was not granted permission to enter the other countries' airspace in the first place.

The Bolivian president was also travelling on a state aircraft rather than a commercial, civilian passenger plane.

The UN's agency for civil aviation, ICAO, said it was strongly concerned about an "apparent forced landing" in the Belarus incident which could be "in contravention of the Chicago Convention" setting out the rules on accessing airspace and aircraft safety.

The 1944 Chicago convention applies to civilian planes, such as the Ryanair flight, but not to state aircraft such as presidential or military planes.

2010: Sunni militant is arrested by Iran

Abdolmalek Rigi, head of Jundullah, a violent Sunni rebel group, was arrested by Iran in February 2010. The official Irna news agency later said he had been flying to an Arab country via Pakistan before his arrest.

"His plane was ordered to land and then he was arrested after the plane was searched," Iranian lawmaker Mohammed Dehgan was quoted by news agency AFP as saying.

Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
Images on Iranian state TV at the time of his arrest showed Rigi in front of a small plane
Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
The same footage showed Rigi apparently on board

Other reports from the time said that Rigi was on board a commercial flight from Dubai to Kyrgyzstan which landed in Iran, where he was arrested.

But there were conflicting reports - particularly in US media - suggesting Pakistan had offered assistance to bring Rigi into custody.

The BBC has not independently verified how Rigi came to be in Iranian custody and Iran's claims that its jets forced a commercial airliner to land in Iran may not be correct.

1985: US jets intercept a plane with ship hijackers on board

In October 1985 an Egyptian plane carrying suspected Palestinian militants was intercepted by US fighter jets and forced to land at a US base in Italy.

Image source, Peter Turnley/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images

The four militants from the Palestinian Liberation Front initially escaped after allowing the Achille Lauro to dock in Egypt. They attempted to flee Egypt on board an airliner chartered from Egyptair, which was taking them to Tunis.

The plane was intercepted by F-16 jets in international airspace over the Mediterranean, according to the Los Angeles Times report at the time, and escorted to the US base of Sigonella in Sicily.

The four hijackers were tried and sentenced to long jail terms in Italy.

1956: The arrest of the leaders of the Algerian independence movement

On 22 October 1956 five leaders of the Algerian independence movement, the FLN, were on a civilian flight from Rabat in Morocco to Tunis, reports the BBC's Ahmed Rouaba. They were due to take part in a conference on the future of the Maghreb region hosted by then Tunisian President Habib Bourguiba.

Algeria was a French colony at the time and the French secret service sent fighter jets to intercept the passenger plane, forcing it to land in Algeria.

The events sparked anger in Morocco and Tunisia.

The five arrested included Ahmed Ben Bella, who went on to be Algeria's first president after it gained independence from France. He died in 2012 aged 95.

Image source, AFP
Image caption,
Six years after his plane was intercepted, Ahmed Ben Bella (left) was representing newly independent Algeria at the United Nations