The air traffic controller who ordered a Ryanair jet to land in Belarus in an act of ‘state terrorism’ has vanished, reports say.
Oleg Galegov has not been seen since last month and both his and his wife’s social media have been taken down, and their mobile phones have also stopped working.
Some believe he has defected to the West.
Galegov – believed to be in his late 30s – relayed to the Ryanair Boeing 737-800 pilot orders from Belarus dictator Alexander Lukashenko’s regime that the tourist plane should make an unscheduled stop in Minsk.
When it landed, Mr Lukashenko critic Roman Protasevich, 26, and his law student girlfriend Sofia Sapega, 23, were promptly separated from other passengers and taken into custody in a KGB secret police detention centre.
The pair had been flying from Athens to the Lithuanian capital Vilnius, but the Minsk ruler sent up a warplane to “force it to land” as it crossed Belarus airspace.
The incident led to unprecedented sanctions against Mr Lukashenko including a ban on Belarus planes across Europe, and the avoidance of the country’s air space by Western airlines.
Galegov’s knowledge of the forced landing of the Ryanair plane could be valuable to the West in establishing the culpability of the Belarus authorities in the incident on May 23.
Minsk said at the time there had been a bomb threat to the plane, a claim widely ridiculed as “fabricated” by the Belarus opposition and foreign governments, with only Russian backing Mr Lukashenko.
Oppositional media Nasha Niva reported that Galegov – originally from staunchly pro-Western Georgia – is believed by his colleagues to be in Georgia rather than detained in Belarus.
A colleague off the air traffic controller was quoted as saying: “Personally, I haven’t seen Oleg for a long time.
“There are rumours that he has disappeared. Colleagues cannot contact him and are worried.
“It is impossible to call him, and he deleted his social networks. The authorities have not officially told us anything.
“But I don’t really fear him, because I think he just protected himself and left.
“He is a great air traffic controller. He will find a job without any problems in any country.
“The voice on the published recording of the Ryanair incident is his.”
A state air traffic control body Belaeronavigatsia said it “knows nothing” about his whereabouts since he went on holiday in June.
Galegov’s wife, Anna, a psychotherapist, is also out of contact, amid suspicions they travelled to Georgia last month, say reports.
Ryanair chief executive Michael O’Leary called the incident “state-sponsored hijacking” adding: “The pilot was put under, I would say, considerable pressure – not overtly but covertly – with the suggestion that he really should divert and land in Minsk…
“He wasn’t instructed to do so. But he wasn’t left with any great alternatives.”
Belarus has said the Ryanair pilot was “not pressured, threatened or coerced” into landing in Minsk, despite being buzzed by a MiG-29 warplane.
Protasevich and his Russian girlfriend Sofia Sapega, 23, were subsequently put under house arrest in Minsk but both face serious charges potentially leading to long jail sentences.
Their families have accused Mr Lukashenko’s regime of a “political game” and fear the pair have been cowed into cooperating with the authorities by the threat of torture.