Bomb threat cited by Belarus was sent after plane was diverted, says Swiss e-mail provider

A Ryanair aircraft (left), which was carrying Belarusian opposition blogger Roman Protasevich (right), and was diverted to Belarus, lands at Vilnius Airport in Lithuania, on May 23, 2021.
A Ryanair aircraft (left), which was carrying Belarusian opposition blogger Roman Protasevich (right), and was diverted to Belarus, lands at Vilnius Airport in Lithuania, on May 23, 2021.PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - A bomb threat cited by Belarusian authorities as the reason for forcing a Ryanair jetliner carrying a dissident journalist to land in Minsk was sent after the plane was diverted, privacy-focused e-mail provider Proton Technologies said on Thursday (May 27).

The Belarusian authorities said they ordered the plane, which was in their airspace on its way from Greece to Lithuania, to land in the Belarusian capital on Sunday because of a bomb threat from the Islamist militant group Hamas.

Journalist Roman Protasevich and his girlfriend Sofia Sapega were arrested when the plane landed.

Hamas denied having any knowledge or connection to any bomb threat and European leaders have accused Belarus of state-sponsored piracy.

On Wednesday, the London-based research group Dossier Centre published what it said was an e-mail carrying the purported Hamas threat from someone calling themselves Ahmed Yurlanov.

The e-mail appeared to have been sent 24 minutes after the Belarusian authorities warned the plane's crew there was a bomb threat.

The e-mail's timing was first reported by the Daily Beast and Newlines magazine.

Proton declined to comment on specifics of the e-mail, saying that its encryption made it impossible to "access or verify the contents of the message."

"However, we are able to see when the message was sent, and we can confirm that the message in question was sent after the plane was redirected," the Swiss company said in a statement.

It added that "we have not seen credible evidence that the Belarusian claims are true and we will support European authorities in their investigations upon receiving a legal request."

The Belarusian Embassy in Washington did not immediately respond to an e-mail seeking comment.

Yurlanov also did not return messages seeking comment. A publicly available Unix timestamp associated with Yurlanov's account suggests that his e-mail address was created around May 14, about a week before the threat was made.

Proton's disclosure came as Ireland's transport minister said the United Nations' International Civil Aviation Organisation had agreed to probe the forced grounding.

European leaders are, meanwhile, drawing up new sanctions against Belarus over Sunday's incident.