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Defector Helps Build Case Against Belarus Over Ryanair Flight It Forced Down

Jacob Scott

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WARSAW — This summer, as Polish guards repelled migrants trying to cross their country’s eastern border with Belarus, one man who slipped furtively into Poland received a warm but top-secret welcome.

Unlike the desperate people from Iraq and elsewhere seeking a better life in Europe, the man was offering a dramatic intelligence coup — inside information on the forced landing just a few weeks earlier in Minsk, the Belarusian capital, of a Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania.

The plane’s passengers included a prominent opponent of President Aleksandr G. Lukashenko of Belarus, the dissident journalist Roman Protasevich, who was arrested along with his Russian girlfriend, Sofia Sapega, when the plane landed in Minsk.

European security officials who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss confidential information said that the man welcomed by the Poles had worked as an air traffic controller at Minsk’s airport. Since his defection, he has provided detailed evidence that the Ryanair flight was targeted for a fake bomb threat as part of an operation to grab Mr. Protasevich orchestrated by Belarus’s intelligence service, the officials said.

Asked about the defection, Stanislaw Zaryn, director of Poland’s Department of National Security, declined to comment on specifics but said that Polish officials investigating what he described as the Ryanair “hijacking” had managed “to obtain an account of a direct witness of the actions taken at the control tower in Minsk.”

He added that, according to the witness, an officer of Belarus’s intelligence and security agency, the K.G.B., was in the control tower at the time and “at a crucial moment took control of the air traffic controller.” Throughout the incident, the Belarusian officer “maintained ongoing telephone contact with someone to whom he reported on what was currently happening with the plane,” Mr. Zaryn said.

The defector’s account of what happened does not fundamentally alter what has been suspected all along but, provided by a witness who was directly involved, it helps Polish prosecutors build a solid legal case against Belarusian officials that could be tested in court, though none of those implicated is likely to appear for any future trial.

The security officials named the air traffic controller as Oleg Galegov, an ethnic Georgian who is married to a Belarusian woman. On duty in the Minsk control tower at the time of the Ryanair incident, Mr. Galegov was responsible for telling the plane’s pilot that there was a bomb on board and that he should halt his journey to Vilnius and land in Minsk for “security reasons.”

“For your information, we have information from special services that you have a bomb on board and it can be activated over Vilnius,” the air traffic controller said, according to a transcript of his communication with the Ryanair plane released in May by the Belarusian authorities. The pilot, a Lithuanian, was skeptical.

Told that airport security staff had received an email about a bomb, the pilot asked which airport had been sent the warning. After 20 minutes of back and forth the pilot was told that “the code is red,” and he reluctantly agreed to divert to Minsk.

Read More on the Belarus-Poland Border Crisis

Mr. Lukashenko personally ordered a fighter jet to escort the plane. According to his press service, Mr. Lukashenko gave an “unequivocal order” to “make the plane do a U-turn and land.”

The subsequent defection of the air traffic controller, which has not been previously reported, has helped Polish prosecutors working on a criminal investigation into the incident. The Boeing 737 at the center of the drama was registered in Poland and operated by a Polish subsidiary of Ryanair, an Irish carrier.

It also helps explain why relations between Belarus and Poland have become so poisonous, with Mr. Lukashenko accusing his western neighbor of plotting “an insurrection” to unseat him, and Poland accusing Belarus of funneling migrants to the border in a “hybrid war.”

As the two countries traded vitriol in public, the air traffic controller from Minsk has been telling Polish investigators what he knows about the forced landing. That information threatens to expose the role of Mr. Lukashenko’s brutal security services in what the Ryanair boss, Michael O’Leary, has condemned as a “premeditated hijacking.”

Nasha Niva, an independent news outlet whose website has been blocked by the Belarusian authorities, reported on its Telegram channel in July that Mr. Galegov had gone on vacation in June and had not been seen since. It quoted a colleague as saying that he had taken a holiday in his home country, Georgia.

Ivan Gerlovsky, deputy general director at Belaeronavigatsiya, a state company that manages air traffic control in Belarus, told the outlet that the personnel department had called Mr. Galegov’s mother-in-law in Minsk without success and was trying to establish where he was.

Belarus’s security agency, called the K.G.B., as it was when the country was part of the Soviet Union, in August signed a cooperation agreement with the security service of Georgia, another former Soviet republic — which would probably have raised the risks for Mr. Galegov if he had been in Georgia. By then, however, he had arrived in Poland He has since left, one of the European security officials said. His current whereabouts was unclear.

Since disappearing over the summer, the air traffic controller has deleted all his social media accounts.

With a view to defection, he initially contacted the U.S. embassy in Warsaw but was steered by the Americans toward the Polish authorities, the European security officials said. The U.S. embassy in Warsaw declined to comment.

The forced landing of a passenger jet carrying 170 people stirred outrage across Europe and prompted demands that the European Union strengthen sanctions it had already imposed on Belarus over a 2020 presidential election in which Mr. Lukashenko claimed an implausible landslide victory.

When European foreign ministers met in May to discuss a new raft of measures aimed at punishing Belarus, Mr. Lukashenko responded with a threat to mobilize migrants as a retaliatory weapon.

Soon after the European bloc imposed new sanctions in June, what had been a trickle of migrants from Belarus into Poland and also into Lithuania, both members of the European Union and NATO, suddenly became a flood as Belarus eased visa requirements and allowed thousands of people, many of them ethnic Kurds from Iraq, to enter previously tightly controlled border zones.

That the Ryanair bomb threat was a hoax has never been in any real doubt: An email sent in the name of Hamas warning of a bomb and cited by the Belarusian authorities as proof of a genuine security risk was not sent until after the plane was ordered to land in Minsk. Hamas, a militant Palestinian group, denied sending any message.

Suspicions that Belarusian security services had orchestrated the hoax were strengthened by the previously unreported findings of a separate investigation by the police and the prosecutor general’s office in Lithuania. Their inquiries found that a passenger who disembarked after the plane landed in Minsk was a Belarusian man believed to have been recruited by his country’s military intelligence service.

That man, identified as Siarhei Kulakou by Lithuanian investigators, arrived in Vilnius a day before Mr. Protasevich took an outbound flight to Athens for a vacation, and then joined the dissident on the return flight to Vilnius a week later.

To this circumstantial evidence of a secret operation by Mr. Lukashenko’s security services, however, has now been added the testimony of the defector and recordings he bought with him to Poland that establish how the operation went down in the Minsk control tower, the security officials said.

As soon as the plane landed, Belarusian security agents grabbed Mr. Protasevich and Ms. Sapega. Since then, the two have been seen only at a news briefing staged by the Belarusian authorities in June and in government-issued videos in which they confessed, apparently under duress, to organizing “mass unrest.”

An opposition Russian news outlet, Dozhd, reported on Sunday that Belarus had filed formal criminal charges against Ms. Sapega that mean she could face at least six years in prison.

Mr. Protasevich’s whereabouts and fate are not known.

Andrew Higgins reported from Warsaw, and Tomas Dapkus from Vilnius, Lithuania. Anatol Magdziarz in Warsaw and Oleg Matsnev in Moscow contributed reporting.

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‘Moon Knight’ Took Marvel in a Different Orbit, but It Didn’t Rise to the Occasion

Jacob Scott

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Before anyone writes that off as an anomaly, “Eternals” tackled a similar introduction of a dense mythology on the bigger screen, with equally mixed results. It’s a reminder that while film-goers have had more than a decade to get to know characters like Iron Man, Captain America and Thor, introducing some of these lesser-known heroes can pose a more formidable challenge beyond catering to the most ardent fans.
For Marvel, there are warning signs in that, since “Moon Knight” will be followed by several series based on second-tier characters, although the next two on the horizon, “Ms. Marvel” (which is due in June) and “She-Hulk,” at least have the benefit of sharing franchises and name recognition with existing Avengers.
Ultimately, “Moon Knight’s” murky storytelling appeared to squander its principal assets, which included the cool look of the character — a costume that was too seldom used — and the presence of Isaac, who possesses additional genre credentials via the “Star Wars” sequels.

Taking its time in peeling back the layers of the character’s complicated backstory, “Moon Knight” took a weird plunge into the Egyptian mythology behind it, in ways that became increasingly confounding and surreal.

By the time the protagonist’s two halves, Steven Grant and Marc Spector, wound up in a psychiatric hospital talking to an anthropomorphic hippo in the penultimate chapter, the question wasn’t so much being able to keep up with the story as whether bothering to do so was worth the effort.

The sixth and final episode brought the plot to a messy close, seeking to stop the goddess Ammit from proceeding to “purify the souls of Cairo, and then the world.” In the customary credit sequence, the producers capped that off by introducing a third personality, Jake Lockley, also rooted in the comics. While that seemingly spelled the end for the show’s villain (Ethan Hawke), the finish — giving the god Khonshu the protégé he sought — paved the way for further adventures should Marvel so choose.

That last twist might be cause for celebration in narrower confines of the Marvel fan universe, but “Moon Knight” too often felt like it was one long Easter-egg sequence, conspicuously preaching to that choir.

Granted, Marvel has made clear that Disney+ offers the chance to explore different kinds of stories, but “Moon Knight” feels at best like a quirky showcase for Isaac and at worst a failed experiment in terms of execution and tone.

That doesn’t mean this “Moon” won’t somehow rise again, if the closely held streaming data justifies it. But the promise that surrounded this property has faded, providing further evidence that even Marvel isn’t immune from setbacks as it moves into its next phase.

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Start-up Pony.ai says it’s the first self-driving company to get a taxi license in China

Jacob Scott

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Autonomous driving start-up Pony.ai can collect fares for robotaxi rides in parts of two major Chinese cities as of Sunday.

Pony.ai handout

BEIJING — Self-driving start-up Pony.ai announced Sunday it received a taxi license, the first of its kind in China.

The license allows Pony.ai to operate 100 self-driving cars as traditional taxis in the Nansha district of the southern city of Guangzhou, the company said.

The Chinese start-up, which is backed by Toyota, received approval from Beijing city late last year to charge fees to operate a commercial robotaxi business in a suburban district of the city. It is not the same as a taxi licence.

Baidu’s Apollo Go also received approval in the same Beijing district last year.

Pony.ai was valued at $8.5 billion in early March. The company said its Nansha taxi license required 24 months of autonomous driving testing in China and/or other countries, and no involvement in any active liability traffic accidents, among other factors.

The start-up said it plans to launch commercial robotaxi businesses in two other large Chinese cities next year. The company is already testing self-driving cars in those cities and in California. 

Robotaxis in China currently have a human driver present for safety.

— CNBC’s Arjun Kharpal contributed to this report.

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How to watch Timberwolves vs. Grizzlies: TV channel, NBA live stream info, start time

Jacob Scott

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Who’s Playing

Memphis @ Minnesota

Current Records: Memphis 2-1; Minnesota 1-2

What to Know

The Memphis Grizzlies’ road trip will continue as they head to Target Center at 10 p.m. ET this past Saturday to face off against the Minnesota Timberwolves. Memphis will be strutting in after a win while Minnesota will be stumbling in from a loss.

The Grizzlies are hoping for another victory. They beat the Timberwolves 104-95 this past Thursday. The victory came about thanks to a strong surge after the first quarter to overcome a 39-21 deficit. Memphis’ success was spearheaded by the efforts of power forward Brandon Clarke, who had 20 points in addition to eight rebounds, and shooting guard Desmond Bane, who shot 7-for-15 from beyond the arc and finished with 26 points and six boards.

Barring any buzzer beaters, Memphis is expected to win a tight contest. They might be worth taking a chance on against the spread as they are currently on a two-game streak of ATS wins.

Memphis’ win brought them up to 2-1 while the Timberwolves’ defeat pulled them down to a reciprocal 1-2. A couple offensive stats to keep in the back of your head while watching: The Grizzlies come into the game boasting the second most points per game in the league at 115.6. But Minnesota is even better: they rank first in the league when it comes to points per game, with 115.9 on average. Tune in for what’s sure to be a high-scoring contest.

How To Watch

When: Saturday at 10 p.m. ET Where: Target Center — Minneapolis, Minnesota TV: ESPN Online streaming: fuboTV (Try for free. Regional restrictions may apply.) Follow: CBS Sports App Ticket Cost: $76.96

Odds

The Grizzlies are a slight 2.5-point favorite against the Timberwolves, according to the latest NBA odds.

The oddsmakers had a good feel for the line for this one, as the game opened with the Grizzlies as a 3-point favorite.

Over/Under: -110

See NBA picks for every single game, including this one, from SportsLine’s advanced computer model. Get picks now.

Series History

Memphis have won 19 out of their last 28 games against Minnesota.

Apr 21, 2022 – Memphis 104 vs. Minnesota 95 Apr 19, 2022 – Memphis 124 vs. Minnesota 96 Apr 16, 2022 – Minnesota 130 vs. Memphis 117 Feb 24, 2022 – Minnesota 119 vs. Memphis 114 Jan 13, 2022 – Memphis 116 vs. Minnesota 108 Nov 20, 2021 – Minnesota 138 vs. Memphis 95 Nov 08, 2021 – Memphis 125 vs. Minnesota 118 May 05, 2021 – Memphis 139 vs. Minnesota 135 Apr 02, 2021 – Memphis 120 vs. Minnesota 108 Jan 13, 2021 – Memphis 118 vs. Minnesota 107 Jan 07, 2020 – Memphis 119 vs. Minnesota 112 Dec 01, 2019 – Memphis 115 vs. Minnesota 107 Nov 06, 2019 – Memphis 137 vs. Minnesota 121 Mar 23, 2019 – Minnesota 112 vs. Memphis 99 Feb 05, 2019 – Memphis 108 vs. Minnesota 106 Jan 30, 2019 – Minnesota 99 vs. Memphis 97 Nov 18, 2018 – Memphis 100 vs. Minnesota 87 Apr 09, 2018 – Minnesota 113 vs. Memphis 94 Mar 26, 2018 – Memphis 101 vs. Minnesota 93 Dec 04, 2017 – Memphis 95 vs. Minnesota 92 Feb 04, 2017 – Memphis 107 vs. Minnesota 99 Nov 19, 2016 – Memphis 93 vs. Minnesota 71 Nov 01, 2016 – Minnesota 116 vs. Memphis 80 Oct 26, 2016 – Memphis 102 vs. Minnesota 98 Mar 16, 2016 – Minnesota 114 vs. Memphis 108 Feb 19, 2016 – Memphis 109 vs. Minnesota 104 Jan 23, 2016 – Minnesota 106 vs. Memphis 101 Nov 15, 2015 – Memphis 114 vs. Minnesota 106

Injury Report for Minnesota

No Injury Information

Injury Report for Memphis

Dillon Brooks: Game-Time Decision (Foot) Santi Aldama: Out (Knee) Killian Tillie: Out (Knee)

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