The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) will not be able to complete a final report into the May 23, 2021 diversion of Ryanair flight FR4978 to the Belarusian capital Minsk unless authorities in the eastern European country provide information that the UN body’s fact-finding investigation team (FFIT) says has not been forthcoming so far. A January 31 ICAO Council meeting considered an initial report, concluding that a bomb threat against the scheduled service from Athens, Greece, to the Lithuanian capital Vilnius was deliberately falsified and had endangered the safety of the aircraft when it was forced to land by Belarus air force fighter jets.
However, member state representatives stopped short of accusing Belarus officials of instigating the threat, pending the conclusion of further inquiries. The Belarus government has been accused of forcing the Ryanair flight to land in order to arrest two exiled political opponents of the regime, which is a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The main point of contention or lack of clarity centers on whether Belarus authorities received, as they claim, two separate emailed bomb threat warnings. Information obtained from Switzerland by Lithuanian investigators only has been able to confirm one of the emails and the FFIT was not able to verify the second, with officials in Minsk claiming that they don’t have a complete log of the email traffic.
Also in dispute is how the threat may or may not have been communicated via voice calls. Investigators were not able to speak to the Minsk-based air traffic controller assigned to the flight because he did not report back for duty after summer vacation and officials claimed not to know his whereabouts. Neither pre-departure screening of the Ryanair aircraft in Athens, nor subsequent searches in Minsk and Vilnius, found any evidence of a bomb on board.
The FFIT report further concluded that Belarus officials failed to contact Ryanair to exchange information on the incident as required by ICAO’s Annex 11 regulations. It also said that the flight crew had been unable to communicate with the Belarusian operational control center.
Complaints about a lack of transparency and cooperation on the part of Belarusian officials also mentioned that video footage from cameras installed near the parking stand at the main airport in Minsk was not made available to investigators. The report also stated that full cockpit voice recordings of conversations between the Ryanair pilots had not been correctly processed after the forced landing.
Urging all member states to fully cooperate with the ongoing ICAO investigation, the ICAO Council pointed out that communicating false information that endangers the safety of an aircraft is an offense under the Montreal Convention. It asked the president of the Council to send the final report to the UN Secretary-General but made no reference to possible measures to be taken against member states and stakeholders that might be found to be in breach of rules.