Belarus woman on diverted Ryanair flight to Minsk insists she’s not a spy

A woman from Belarus who was on the Ryanair flight diverted to Belarus insists she is not a spy.

Alexandra Stabredova was among those who were on the journey rerouted to Minsk from the original destination of Vilnius, Lithuania.

Journalist Roman Protasevich, 26, who is an enemy of Belarus's dictator Alexander Lukashenko, and his student girlfriend Sofia Sapega, 23, were both detained.

Earlier reports suggested that three or four Russians had quietly left the flight at the same time as the pair were arrested.

In the aftermath of the incident, Russian investigative journalist Roman Dobrokhotov claimed that as well as Mr Protasevich and his girlfriend, four Russian passengers who had been on the flight to Lithuania got off the plane in Minsk.

He claimed: "Four citizens of Russia did not continue the flight to Vilnius.

"This operation was escorted by Russian special services."

Now state TV in Belarus has identified two Belarus nationals and a Greek man who say they remained in Minsk rather than fly on to Vilnius.

All three passengers claimed that they left the plane in Minsk because they had been due to fly to Belarus anyway, transiting via Vilnius, and the emergency landing got them to their final destination faster.

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But they had some difficulties in convincing the authorities to let them stay.

Ms Stabredova said: "At first we were not allowed to stay. It was very hard to persuade them."

She said they were “very happy” when they were not made to reboard the Ryanair flight because they would have missed their connecting flight back to Minsk due to the emergency landing.

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Fellow passenger Sergey Kulakov said he also begged the authorities to allow him to stay rather than make him fly on to Vilnius.

The third man was a Greek citizen named Zisis Yason who was travelling to meet his Belarus wife.

The Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius changed course moments before landing in the Lithuanian capital.

Flight FR4978 was forced to divert to Minsk and was accompanied by a fighter jet that had been scrambled to guide it there on Sunday night.

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As soon as Ryanair announced the decision to divert the flight, Mr Protasevich "immediately" opened the overhead compartment to collect his electronics, handing his laptop and phone over to his girlfriend.

The pair were arrested when the plane landed in Minsk.

One passenger said officers used physical force when arresting Mr Protasevich and said he looked "super scared".

Mr Protasevich has been a vocal opponent of dictator Lukashenko, Europe's last remaining dictator.

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He left Belarus in 2019 to live in exile in Lithuania, from where he covered the 2020 Belarus presidential election.

The journalist has been described as a "private enemy" of Lukashenko, who clung to power after what were seen by many as unfair elections last year.

Mr Protasevich was later charged with terrorism and inciting riots and could face up to 15 years in jail.

World leaders have condemned Lukashenko for "hijacking" the plane with the UK government calling on airlines to avoid Belarus.

The EU leaders have also agreed to impose sanctions against the country.

Mr Protasevich has since appeared in a video where he said he was in good health and admitted to organising mass protests, but his allies say the clip was made under duress and is a result of coercion.

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