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Probe Into Belarus's Diversion of Ryanair Flight Faces Delays Over Black Box Analysis

05/30/2021 | 11:36am EDT

By Benjamin Katz and Daniel Michaels

Lithuanian and Polish investigators probing a diverted Ryanair flight over Belarus haven't yet decoded information held in the plane's black box amid early frustration with the airline's cooperation and conflicting narratives by several governments involved.

Like many aircraft-related probes, investigators believe the plane's black box -- which holds devices that store operational data and cockpit audio -- could hold critical information about what happened on May 23 over Belarus. But unlike in investigations involving crashes, the plane and crew are safe, and the aircraft's black box has been available to investigators for almost a week.

Meanwhile, sometimes-competing jurisdictions in the probe and political sensitivities over what has become an international incident have made the investigation more complex than most.

"Most investigations start from a premise of determining what should have happened, then examine what did happen" and then reconcile the two and draw lessons learned, said Conor Nolan, chairman of the Virginia-based Flight Safety Foundation, which advocates for air safety. "In this case, we cannot easily determine what should have happened because it is far from clear how reliable any of the source data is."

Lithuania and Poland haven't yet determined where they will ship the black box for analysis, saying they are looking for a country that won't appear to be politically biased. Lithuania, where the plane landed after its stop in Minsk, has opened a criminal probe. Officials there said they have interviewed passengers and debriefed the cockpit and cabin crew. The plane and crew returned Saturday to London's Stansted Airport, Ryanair's biggest base.

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko said on May 23 he had scrambled a jet fighter to intercept the plane after receiving a threat of a bomb aboard. While the Ryanair plane was on the ground in Minsk, authorities arrested a prominent Belarus dissident aboard and detained his girlfriend.

Details about the bomb threat have been widely discredited, but exactly what happened between Belarus authorities and Ryanair pilots is still unknown. Ryanair has said ground control gave the pilots no choice but to divert from their original destination of Vilnius, Lithuania, to Minsk. The airline's chief executive said he believed state security officers were aboard the flight as part of what he called a preplanned hijacking.

The plane departed from Athens, and Greece's prime minister weighed in Friday, disputing Ryanair's account and saying there was no evidence agents working for Belarus boarded the plane. Belarus has said it was acting according to international protocols to a bomb threat.

Belarus released a transcript of communication between traffic controllers and the plane which portrayed the pilots repeatedly questioning controllers' recommendation for the jet to land in Minsk.

Complicating the investigation are the multiple governments involved. The aircraft is owned by Dublin, Ireland-based Ryanair Holdings PLC, but is registered via a subsidiary in Poland. According to rules governing international aviation investigations, that means Poland should lead a probe.

Greece, as the country of the flight's origin, is allowed to participate in the probe, as is Ireland, where Ryanair is based. Investigators from any country who had nationals on the flight are also allowed to take part.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation is part of the probe because American citizens were aboard. "The Department of Justice, including the FBI, is working closely on this matter with our European counterparts," a spokesperson said.

Jurisdiction over a criminal probe is less clear-cut, as is the role individual countries can play, deepening the complexity. The International Civil Aviation Organization, an arm of the United Nations, is also investigating.

Lithuania and Poland have said they would decide this week where to send the data and voice recorders. Neither country has the technical ability to do the analysis. They have said they prefer a third-party state with no connection to Belarus or Ryanair.

It isn't clear if information from the black box will answer all the questions investigators have. One concern is that the cockpit voice recorder typically doesn't store recordings for longer than two hours. It isn't clear if the relevant portion of the flight is still accessible, since the plane continued on to its final destination, Lithuanian authorities said. It may be that the dialogue concerning the diversion was overwritten by that later flight.

On Friday, Rolandas Kiskis, the chief of the Lithuanian Criminal Police Bureau, said he was frustrated with Ryanair's initial cooperation in the investigation.

"Cooperation is ongoing," he said. "But, to be honest, we and the prosecution service believe it could be faster and more intensive." By Saturday, the police said the company had come back with more information. A spokeswoman for Ryanair declined to comment.

The cooperation of Belarus is also in doubt. So far, Lithuanian police have received what they called a cursory response from Belarusian law-enforcement agencies via Interpol channels. Mr. Lukashenko on Friday met with Russian President Vladimir Putin, carrying a black briefcase filled with documents he said support his country's account of the incident.

Mr. Lukashenko's office didn't immediately respond to a request for comment about what the Belarusian president revealed to Mr. Putin. The Kremlin declined to comment on what the Russian president was told.

Margiris Meilutis in Vilnius, Lithuania contributed to this article.

Write to Benjamin Katz at ben.katz@wsj.com and Daniel Michaels at daniel.michaels@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

05-30-21 1336ET

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