Kiev threatened to send fighter jets to ground Belarusian passenger plane – air carrier

Belavia's Boeing 737  © Andrey Rudakov
Ukraine’s Security Service (SSU) turned around a passenger plane en route from Kiev to Minsk, the capital of Belarus, threatening to launch fighter jets to intercept it, a statement issued by Belavia airlines claims.

According to the aviation company’s statement, its passenger plane bound for Minsk was forced to return to Zhulyany airport after departing from Kiev after the aircraft’s pilot received an order from a Ukrainian traffic controller to immediately head back, with no further explanation.

“On October 21, 2016, Belavia Boeing 737-800 number EW-456PA, carrying out flight V2-840 from Zhulyany (Kiev) to Minsk was forced to return to the departure airport. There were 136 passengers and six crew members on board,” Belavia said in a statement, noting that, according to the flight schedule, the plane was a mere 50 kilometers from the Belarusian border when it was ordered to turn back.

“It was also stated [by the traffic controllers] that in case the order was not fulfilled, fighter jets would be sent into the air,” the statement continued. The conversation between the pilot and air traffic controllers, including the threat to send fighter jets to intercept the plane, has been recorded and is currently in possession of Belavia, the company’s deputy director general, Igor Cherginets, told RIA Novosti news agency.

The pilot in command of the plane later confirmed he had received the fighter jets threat from the ground.

"We communicate with air traffic controllers in English, but in this case he contacted us in Russian. We were in the Kiev sector. He contacted us and said that we must return to the Zhulyany airport," captain Viktor Shyshlo told Belarus television on Sunday, as quoted by RIA Novosti.

"He [the air traffic controller] said that we would be informed on the cause [of diversion] on the ground, and that if we didn't follow the order to return, fighter jets would be scrambled," the pilot said, adding that his passengers' safety was his priority and that the crew "must follow all commands from the ground."

Upon landing in Kiev, one of the passengers was taken off the flight by Ukrainian law enforcement before the plane was refueled and allowed to continue its flight to Minsk.

Belavia airlines offered an apology to its passengers for the inconvenience, saying it intends to request compensation for the detour from Ukraine’s aviation authorities. However, Ukraine’s aviation authorities, insist the plane was ordered to return to Kiev to comply with an order from the Security Service of Ukraine (SSU), which explained that they had received intelligence about a possible threat to national security on board the plane in question.

“Yesterday, our office received information about a foreign citizen and a possible threat to national security of our country. At the time we received this information, the person in question, as it appeared, was on board the Belavia airlines aircraft, which was supposed to depart to Minsk,” the chief of staff of the SSU, Alexander Tkachuk, told 112 Ukraine broadcaster, claiming that the SSU had acted within the framework of the law. He also refuted claims that Ukraine had threatened to scramble fighter jets to intercept the plane, calling them “absurd.”

The passenger who appears to have been the cause of the incident was later released by authorities the same day and left Kiev for Minsk at 7pm. According to Strana.ua news outlet, he has been identified as Armen Martirosyan, a journalist, blogger, and anti-Maidan activist.

According to the outlet, Martirosyan left Kiev and moved to Moscow back in 2014 after the Maidan revolution in Ukraine. In a Facebook post published after the incident, he wrote that he has already returned to Moscow and will reveal the details of his detention in Kiev and plans for further action after he speaks to his lawyers. Responding to a question about how he had managed to get away so quickly in the comments to this post, he wrote that “a friend’s call can solve many problems.”

Belarus’ Foreign Ministry has filed a note of protest with the Ukrainian authorities over the forced return of the aircraft, and, on Saturday, called in the Chargé d’affaires of Ukraine in the Republic of Belarus, Valery Dzhigun, to express its discontentment with the incident. Belarus now expects an official apology and is demanding compensation for all financial costs and expenses incurred as a result of the actions of the Ukrainian authorities. Belarusian Ambassador to Ukraine Igor Sokol has also been instructed to submit a similar note of protest with Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry.