© Reuters. A Ryanair plane that carried Belarusian opposition blogger and activist Roman Protasevich and was diverted to Belarus, where he was arrested by authorities, lands at Vilnius Airport in Vilnius, Lithuania on May 23, 2021. REUTERS / Andrius Sytas
By Gabriela Baczynska and Matthias Williams (NYSE 🙂
BRUSSELS / KYIV (Reuters) – Several airlines said Monday they would avoid Belarusian airspace after Belarus messed up a fighter plane to intercept a Ryanair jetliner and arrested a dissident journalist in an act denounced as “state piracy” by Western powers .
The meeting of the heads of state and government of the European Union on Monday evening was supposed to ban Belarusian airlines from the airspace of their bloc and urge the airlines based in the EU not to fly over the former Soviet republic. This emerges from a draft by Reuters.
The 27 member states’ leaders will also consider adding to the list of Belarusian persons they are already sanctioning and calling on the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) to investigate the incident as a matter of urgency on Sunday when Belarus became a Ryanair Forced plane to land.
“The reaction should be quick and violent,” Belgian Prime Minister Alexander de Croo told journalists ahead of the EU summit, which began at 1700 GMT. [L2N2NB0FT]
Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney said in a language repeated by a number of other EU countries: “This was effectively a state sponsored air piracy.”
A spokesman for UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said he was “deeply concerned” about the incident and called for a full investigation.
The three Baltic states said Belarusian airspace should be declared “unsafe” and, as regional tensions increased, Belarus and Latvia said they would expel each other’s ambassadors.
Some airlines and countries did not wait for guidelines on how to respond to the flight from Greece to Lithuania, which was diverted through Belarusian airspace while in flight.
The UK announced that it would issue a notice to instruct UK airlines to suspend flights over Belarus and that it would suspend the air permit for Belarusian national airline Belavia with immediate effect.
Latvian airline airBaltic and Scandinavian airline SAS announced they would no longer use Belarusian airspace, and Cyprus-registered Avia Solutions announced that their Lithuania-based airlines would follow suit.
Lithuanian Transport Minister Marius Skuodis said Polish LOT and Hungarian airline Wizzair would also not use Belarusian airspace and all flights to and from Lithuanian airports would have to avoid Belarusian airspace from midnight GMT.
CRACKDOWN ON DISSENT
Countries also called for the release of the 26-year-old Roman Protasevich, who was arrested when the plane was about to land in Minsk, the Belarusian capital.
His exile social media feed has been one of the last independent news networks for Belarus since a massive crackdown on dissent last year. Sophia Sapega, a 23-year-old student who was traveling with him, was also arrested.
NEXTA, a news agency that Protasevich worked for before starting his own widespread blog, interviewed his mother, who said she knew it was a conspiracy to catch him as soon as she reports a bombshell heard on a flight.
“I just want to say that my son is just a hero, just a hero,” said Natalia Protasevich, crying. “I really hope the international community will wake up for him.”
Belarus says it acted in response to a bomb threat on the flight that turned out to be a false alarm. It said Monday that its ground controllers directed the flight but did not order it to land. State media said the intervention was personally ordered by President Alexander Lukashenko.
Ryanair chief Michael O’Leary, who described the incident as a state sponsored hijacking, said he believed security forces were on the flight.
Lithuanian authorities said five passengers never arrived, suggesting three more besides detainees Protasevich and Sapega disembarked in Minsk.
Russia, which has provided security, diplomatic and financial assistance to Lukashenko, accused the West of hypocrisy.
Given the security ties between Minsk and Moscow, some European politicians openly speculated on whether Russia might have played a role in escalating an incident with a small European pariah state to an incident with a superpower.
EU summit chairman Charles Michel said the incident was “an international scandal” and the statement prepared for the meeting said that new sanctions would be imposed as soon as possible.
EU countries could ban Belavia from European airports and are considering other unspecified measures regarding ground transport links, an EU official said.
Still, opportunities for Western retaliation seem limited.
The Montreal-based ICAO has no regulatory powers, and the EU has no powers over flights that take off and land in Belarus or fly over its airspace, with the exception of direct flights that originate or land in Europe.
The EU and the United States imposed several rounds of financial sanctions on Minsk last year that did not affect the behavior of Lukashenko, who withstood mass demonstrations against his rule after a controversial election.
Lukashenko denies election fraud. Since the controversial vote, the authorities have rounded up thousands of his opponents, and all major opposition figures are now in prison or in exile.
Belarus is on the air route from routes within Europe as well as between Europe and Asia.
Bypassing Belarus would slow down flights and cost airlines money and, apart from the few who announced action, it was not clear if others would do it unless it was necessary.