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Airlines halt flights amid outrage over Belarus plane arrest

May 25, 2021

The forced landing of a passenger flight in Belarus and the subsequent arrest of a dissident has sparked backlash across the continent. Belarus' opposition has called for tougher measures against Lukashenko's government.

A ground crew member waves at the pilot of a Belavia jet airplane at Minsk International Airport
Airlines have been advised not to fly over Belarus airspace Image: Leonid Faeberg/Russian Look/picture alliance

Several European airlines announced on Tuesday that they are suspending flights over Belarus after Minsk forced a Ryanair jet to land to arrest a dissident journalist.

European Union leaders had urged airlines to avoid Belarus' airspace as they imposed sanctions against the government of longtime leader Alexander Lukashenko.

EU Council President Charles Michel shared an image on Twitter showing air traffic cleared over Belarus, with the caption "Europe in action."  

Western leaders accused Belarusian authorities of hijacking the passenger plane during its flight on Sunday, while Minsk claimed it was trying to secure the jet after receiving a bomb threat.

Which airlines are affected?

Air France said in a statement it had "taken note" of the conclusions of Monday's EU summit and had suspended flights over Belarus "until further notice."

Finland's flag carrier Finnair and Polish airline LOT also said they would stop using Belarusian airspace.

Germany's Lufthansa, Dutch KLM, Scandinavian SAS and Latvian Air Baltic made similar announcements on Monday.

Singapore Airlines is also rerouting flights "that are bound for Europe to avoid the Belarusian airspace" and will continue to "closely monitor the situation," AFP news agency quoted a spokesperson as saying.

Infografik Karte Flugroute von Ryanair 4978 EN
The Ryanair plane was forced to change course near the edge of Belarusian airspace

How has the Belarusian opposition reacted?

Exiled Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya on Tuesday called on Western leaders to ramp up pressure on the Belarus government.

"The situation with the hijacking of the plane cannot be considered separately from other repressions and flagrant violations of human rights in Belarus," Tsikhanouskaya said.

In a call with US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, Tsikhanouskaya "called on the United States to isolate the regime and pressure it through sanctions," she said on Twitter.

The opposition figure also said that she asked for the Belarusian opposition to be invited to next month's G7 summit in Britain.

"All of this is a result of the regime's impunity and the lack of a decisive response from the international community," she added.

How have world powers responded so far?

The United Nations rights office demanded the immediate release of 26-year-old Raman Pratasevich, the Belarusian activist journalist who was detained after the plane landed on Sunday. 

"We are shocked by the unlawful arrest and arbitrary detention," spokesman Rupert Colville told reporters in Geneva. 

"The manner, through threat of military force, in which Protasevich was abducted from the jurisdiction of another state and brought within that of Belarus, was tantamount to an extraordinary rendition."

The EU has since banned Belarusian carriers from flying over the bloc's airspace and called for the release of Pratasevich. Britain also said Belarusian airlines would not be allowed to enter its airspace unless they have specific authorization. 

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg welcomed the EU sanctions, adding that the "forced landing of a passenger flight by Belarus was dangerous."

US President Joe Biden said his administration was looking into "appropriate options to hold accountable those responsible, in close coordination with the European Union."

German Chancellor Angela Merkel described the Belarusian government's account of the incident as "completely implausible."

What has Belarus said? 

Belarus, which said it stopped the plane over a security threat, claimed Western countries were making "unfounded accusations" about the event for political reasons.

On Tuesday, Belarus said it had invited European, US and international aviation officials to investigate the incident.

Russia, an ally of Belarus, has defended Minsk's handling of the crisis. 

fb/rs (AFP, AP, dpa, Reuters)