Passengers on board a Ryanair flight that was suddenly diverted as it began its descent into Vilnius, Lithuania, have described their panic as they changed course with no explanation.
Flight FR4978 was bound for Lithuania from Greece when it was forced to switch direction for the Belarusian capital Minsk on Sunday so the authorities there could arrest dissident journalist Roman Protasevich, 26.
The pilot announced the emergency diversion, but provided no details.
The plane was then accompanied by a fighter jet that had been scrambled to guide it to Minsk.
In the moments beforehand, everything had been calm and nothing had appeared out of the ordinary.
A sudden dive and fears of a crash
“We all on the plane had panicked because we thought we were going to crash,” Lithuanian passenger Raselle Grigoryeva told broadcaster ABC News.
“This was a sudden dive, changing the altitude very drastically. It was very violent. I’ve never felt this on an airplane. Everybody was in shock,” she said.
Flight FR4978 had turned east to Minsk just before it had reached the Lithuanian border.
Belarus had cited a bomb threat as why the flight needed to change, but the claim turned out to be false.
Journalist Protasevich ‘scared’ and ‘trembling’
Another Lithuanian passenger, named only as Mantas, told Reuters news agency that the moment the pilot announced the flight was being diverted to Minsk, Mr Protasevich stood up and opened an overhead locker containing his luggage.
“[He] took the luggage, and was trying to split things, like the computer he gave to his girlfriend,” Mantas said. “I think he made a mistake. There were plenty of people so he could give the things to me or other passengers and not the girlfriend, who was also, I think, arrested.”
Mantas added that he witnessed security forces at Minsk airport using sniffer dogs to search Mr Protasevich’s luggage.
One passenger, who was not named, said officers had used physical force when arresting the journalist and that he appeared “super-scared”, adding: “I looked at him directly into his eyes and he was very sad.”
Passenger Edvinas Dimsa, 37, told AFP that it was clear that Mr Protasevich was “very much afraid”. “It looked like if the window had been open, he would have jumped out of it.”
Another passenger told Lithuania’s Delfi news that while Mr Protasevich remained relatively calm, he was visibly trembling when he left the plane, with officers around him “all the time”.
“We asked him what was going on… he said: ‘The death penalty awaits me here.’”
Others described how Mr Protasevich had immediately identified himself to officers, who then appeared to confiscate his passport.
Passengers held in Minsk for hours without info
The remaining passengers were kept at Minsk airport for hours as their luggage and paperwork were checked.
“We were eight hours there. We didn’t get any information what happened, only what we could find on the internet,” one passenger told Reuters.
Ryanair flight FR4978 finally landed in Vilnius at about 21:30.
Mr Protasevich is a former editor of media Nexta, a media operation with a Telegram channel. He left Belarus in 2019 to live in exile in Lithuania. From there he covered the events of the 2020 Belarus presidential election, after which he was charged with terrorism and inciting riots.