A prominent dissident journalist hauled off a passenger plane forced down over Belarus was tracked by unknown people – likely Belarusian or Russian intelligence agents – for days in Greece before the flight, investigators from Greece’s internal security services believe.
On Sunday, Belarus scrambled a fighter jet on a flimsy bomb threat premise to divert a Ryanair flight between Athens and Vilnius, Lithuania, while it flew over Belarusian airspace.
When the plane landed in Minsk, 26-year-old Roman Protasevich, the editor of an opposition Telegram channel, was arrested.
Protasevich, who had been living in exile, was returning to Vilnius four days after the end of an economic conference in Athens attended by many Belarusian dissident figures, which has led Greek intelligence investigators to believe he was under extended surveillance the entire time he was in the country.
Just before the flight, according to Protasevich’s colleagues, he saw people following him through the Athens airport taking photographs. It is believed this team had Protasevich under observation to determine when he would take a flight that would pass over Belarusian airspace.
Officials from the Greek National Intelligence Service (EYP in local initials) told local press outlets that at least three unknown operatives were tracking Protasevich throughout Athens since his arrival before the conference on the 9th of May. After the conference ended on the 16th of May, it is believed that Protasevich went on holiday for several days in Crete with his partner, where they were also under observation by what are believed to be Russian or Belarusian intelligence officers, a Greek official told VICE World News.
Roman Protasevich pictured in Poland in August 2020. Photo: Artur Widak/NurPhoto via Getty Images
“It is clear as we gather CCTV footage from hotels, from Crete and from the airport that they were being tracked by intelligence professionals carrying Russian passports,” said the Interior Ministry official who asked not to be identified. “We believe these people operated on behalf of Belarus and helped determine [that] Protasevich was on board the plane as it passed over Belarus.” Protasevich and his partner Sofia Sapega were both hauled off the flight when it landed in Minsk. When the flight eventually landed in Vilnius it transpired that three other passengers had also disembarked in the Belarusian capital.
“We understood, however, that [the] Minsk regime functions in a 70s and 80s Soviet mode. That is, with Cold-War procedures, which are not accepted in 2021,” Greek Deputy Foreign Minister Militadis Varvitsiotis told local media on Tuesday.
A regional intelligence official said that the Greek services were angry over what they see as a betrayal of unofficial rules that should prohibit aggressive operations inside an EU capital city.
“Greece really gets along with everyone but Turkey,” said the regional official who lacks permission to discuss the matter openly. “This cooperation with Russia, the United States, with the rest of the EU is a political and economic necessity for Greece but they cannot ignore a wildly illegal kidnapping operation that largely took place on their territory. The Greeks will not go out of their way to cause trouble for anyone but they’re collecting all the evidence they can to be part of whatever EU-wide response takes place.”
The EU has already dropped a slew of sanctions targeting flights to and from Minsk, with most of Europe refusing to fly over Belarus or to allow its flights in its airspace while the matter is being investigated.
“Greece will not lead a political incident but it will not shirk from its duties to protect its population and guests,” said the Interior Ministry official.