Thursday, December 2News That Matters

UK government tells airlines to avoid Belarusian airspace after journalist arrested

Aircraft have been told by the British government to avoid Belarusian airspace after the alleged state-sponsored hijack of a Ryanair flight so one of President Lukashenko’s critics could be arrested.

The UK’s Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) has suspended all foreign permits held by Belarusian carriers, including state-owned airline Belavia, following the fallout from Sunday’s controversial incident which provoked widespread international condemnation.

Journalist Roman Protasevich was detained in Minsk after his flight, carrying around 100 passengers travelling from Athens in Greece, was rerouted from its scheduled destination of Vilnius, Lithuania, to the Belarusian capital on the orders of Alexander Lukashenko.

The 26-year-old blogger has been described as a “private enemy” of the dictator, who has clung to power after what are widely regarded as unfair elections last year. There are fears Mr Protasevich may have been “tortured”.

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said he had instructed the CAA to request that airlines do not fly over Belarusian airspace “in order to keep passengers safe” – and the body has now issued a notice to all UK registered carriers to that effect.

Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said the interception was a “shocking assault on civil aviation” and further sanctions were being considered against the regime, including the suspension of energy pipelines in Belarus, adding the country’s ambassador in London had been summoned.

European leaders and the US have strongly condemned the arrest of the Belarusian dissident journalist.

More on Alexander Lukashenko

Belarus state media said the aircraft was switched to Minsk following a bomb threat, and that Mr Lukashenko personally ordered a MiG-29 fighter jet to escort the flight to Minsk.

However, opposition groups have said it was an operation by Belarus special services to “hijack” the flight so they could arrest Mr Protasevich. Sophia Sapega, a 23-year-old student travelling with him, was also detained.

The Ryanair flight from Athens was forced to change direction and land in Minsk. Pic: Flightradar24
Image: The Ryanair flight from Athens was forced to change direction and land in Minsk. Pic: Flightradar24

Ryanair boss Michael O’Leary said it was a “state-sponsored hijacking” and claimed agents from Russia’s KGB were also on board.

Mr O’Leary said of the incident: “I think it’s very frightening for the crew, for the passengers who were held under armed guard, had their bags searched.”

He told Newstalk: “It was clear it appears that the intent of the Russian authorities was to remove a journalist and his travelling companion.

“We believe there was also some KGB agents offloaded from the aircraft as well.”

Mr Raab described the actions of the Belarusian authorities as “outlandish” and a “ruse”.

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Raab calls for the release of Protasevich

In the Commons, he told MPs: “The Belarusian authorities claim this was in relation to an alleged bomb threat. We see no evidence to support that claim.”

And Mr Raab called for the release of Mr Protasevich from the “spurious charges” he faces.

He added: “We are urgently seeking full details of precisely what took place in relation to Flight FR4978, but the scenario, as reported, is a shocking assault on civil aviation and assault on international law.

“It represents a danger to civilian flights everywhere.

“The regime in Minsk must provide a full explanation for what appears to be… a serious violation of international law.

“Mr Lukashenko’s regime must be held to account for such reckless and dangerous behaviour.”

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Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya ‘sure’ journalist ‘is being tortured’

Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee Tom Tugendhat asked Mr Raab to call for the suspension of energy pipelines in Belarus.

He said the government was “absolutely right” to impose the new rules on flights and asked: “Will he also go one step further and will he call for a suspension of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline and the Yamal energy pipeline that flows through Belarus which is where the money comes from that supports this tyrannous regime?”

Responding, Mr Raab said on Nord Stream and “other possibilities”: “We will consider and consult with our partners and see what further action they are willing to take as well.”

And shadow foreign secretary Lisa Nandy said the incident risks creating “an extraordinarily dangerous precedent that will put journalists, dissidents and activists from the UK or anywhere else at risk”.

Roman Protasevich being detained by police in Belarus in 2017 during a protest
Image: Roman Protasevich being detained by police in Belarus in 2017 during a protest

Simon Coveney, foreign minister of Ireland, said: “This was effectively aviation piracy, state-sponsored”, and earlier said that inaction from the EU would be seen as weakness.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken accused President Lukashenko’s government of endangering the lives of those on board the aircraft and demanded a “full investigation”.

“We strongly condemn the Lukashenka regime’s brazen and shocking act to divert a commercial flight and arrest a journalist. We demand an international investigation and are coordinating with our partners on next steps. The United States stands with the people of Belarus,” he tweeted.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said the incident was “serious and dangerous” and “requires international investigation”.

EU leaders are meeting today to discuss possible action following the incident.

Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda said “the time of rhetoric and vocal expression is over and we need clear actions to change the pattern” of the Belarusian regime’s behaviour.