Air France among airlines to suspend flights over Belarus after plane ‘hijacking’

James Marshall
May 25, 2021

While the plane was in Belarusian airspace, air traffic controllers told the pilot there was a bomb threat against the plane.

Sofiya Sapega, a 23-year-old law student at the European Humanities University (EHU) in Lithuania, was detained along with opposition journalist Roman Protasevich, 26, when their Athens-to-Vilnius flight was diverted to Minsk on Sunday.

He was arrested and, in a video released by Belarusian authorities on Monday evening, appeared to admit he was involved in organising mass protests in Minsk previous year.

In the video released overnight, Protasevich can be seen seated at a desk in a dark hooded sweatshirt.

The comments were immediately dismissed by his allies as made under duress. He said that Protasevichs brief appearance on Belarus state television Monday night was not reassuring given the apparent bruising to his face and the strong likelihood that his appearance was not voluntary and his confession to serious crimes was forced.

Salvatore Sciacchitano, the president of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) Council, called for an urgent meeting in connection with the incident involving the Ryanair airplane in Belarus, ICAO said on Monday.

"The reaction should be swift and be severe", Belgian Prime Minister Alexander de Croo told journalists ahead of the European Union summit.

Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney, using language that was echoed by a number of other European Union countries, said: "This was effectively aviation piracy, state sponsored".

In addition to the aviation measures, they also pledged to add new economic sanctions against the Minsk government, but those can be legally cumbersome, and will most likely take longer to enforce than the aviation-focused measures.

During Lukashenko's crackdown on dissent, almost all opposition figures have been driven into exile or jailed, many on charges of organising demonstrations, which the government describes as terrorism.

Ryanair boss Michael O'Leary said the incident was a "state-sponsored hijacking" and claimed agents from Russia's KGB were on board the flight.

Britain said it was instructing British airlines to cease flights over Belarus and that it would suspend the air permit for Belarus's national carrier, Belavia, with immediate effect. KLM, the Dutch arm of carrier Air France KLM, will temporarily halt flights, Dutch news agency ANP reported.

Still, the options for Western retaliation appear limited.

The EU is also calling for an investigation into the incident and is planning to sanction Belarusian officials responsible for the aircraft's diversion.

Accompanied by a Belarusian fighter jet - on the orders of strongman Alexander Lukashenko - the plane landed in the capital Minsk.

Lukashenko has denied electoral fraud. Since the disputed vote, authorities rounded up thousands of his opponents, with all major opposition figures now in jail or exile.

Russian Federation is expecting to get permission for a consular meeting with Sapega soon, she said.

Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said it was "very hard to believe" the seizure of Mr Protasevich from the flight could have taken place "without at least the acquiescence of the authorities in Moscow". "I truly hope that the global community will wake up for him".

Protasevich's father Dmitry Protasevich told AFP in Poland that he had not been able to contact his son since Saturday and that he did not appear himself in the video. State media said the intervention was ordered personally by Lukashenko.

On Sunday he was pulled off the passenger plane that was forced to land in the Belarusian capital Minsk.

Other reports by Click Lancashire

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