Thursday, 5 August, 2021

Belarus flights redirected after Roman Protasevich's arrest


London, May 25: Several European airlines have said that they will not fly over Belarus, days after a dissident journalist was arrested on a flight diverted to Minsk.

Air France is the latest major carrier to ban overflights. Neighboring Ukraine and Poland are stopping all flights to and from Belarus.

Western countries accuse Belarus of hijacking the Ryanair plane carrying journalist Roman Protasevich on Sunday. The Greece-Lithuania flight was rerouted over a supposed bomb threat.

Belarus authorities on Monday released a video of Protasevich that appears to have been recorded under duress since his arrest.

He faces charges related to his reporting of last August's disputed election and subsequent crackdown on mass opposition protests and has said he fears the death penalty after being placed on a terrorism list.

Belarus is the only European country that still executes prisoners.

At a meeting in Brussels on Monday, the leaders of the 27 European Union member states called for the overflight ban, and promised further economic sanctions.


What is happening in the air?

At the Brussels summit, EU leaders told the bloc's airlines not to fly over Belarus. They have also asked member states to suspend operating permits for its national carrier Belavia.


The Athens-Vilnius flight was diverted because of a bomb threat, Belarusian officials said. Photo - HO VIA EPA

Air France said it had "suspended overflights of Belarusian airspace until further notice". Finnish airline Finnair also announced a ban.

Air France's Dutch subsidiary KLM, along with German carrier Lufthansa, Scandinavia's SAS and others, announced similar suspensions on Monday.

Singapore Airlines also said it was rerouting flights to avoid Belarus.

Meanwhile, Polish national airline Lot said it had suspended both overflights and flights to and from Minsk, and Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said Ukrainian carriers were banned from flying over or into Belarus.

Belavia said it was suspending flights to the UK and France until 30 October. Belarus, though not in the EU, borders three EU countries. Many flights to and from Asia as well as within Europe use its airspace.


What prompted the flight bans?

Belarus sent a fighter jet to force Ryanair flight FR4978 - which had departed from the Greek capital, Athens, and was bound for Vilnius in Lithuania - to land, claiming there was a bomb threat. It touched down in the capital Minsk at 13:16 local time (10:16 GMT) on Sunday.

Police then took Protasevich away when the plane's 126 passengers disembarked. The activist, who witnesses said was "super scared", was arrested along with his girlfriend Sofia Sapega.


Accusations against Protasevich's girlfriend Sofia Sapega are unclear. Photo - Reuters


The incident has drawn sharp condemnation from across the world, with countries urging the immediate release of Mr Protasevich and a full investigation.

Sapega's mother told the BBC that the 23-year-old had been taken to a Minsk jail, adding that the last word she managed to write on her WhatsApp messaging account was 'Mummy'. The accusations against her are unclear.

"I don't know what they can charge her with. Forgoing on holiday with Roman Protasevich? It's his life. What he does is exclusively his choice," she said.

Belarus said the flight had been diverted because of a bomb threat from the Palestinian militant group Hamas.

But Hamas has denied any involvement. German leader Chancellor Angela Merkel said the Belarusian claim was "completely implausible".

Dozens of Belarusian officials, including President Alexander Lukashenko, are already under EU sanctions including travel bans and asset freezes, imposed in response to the repression on opponents.

The 66-year-old leader has cracked down on dissenting voices since winning a disputed election last August. Many opposition figures have been arrested, while others fled into exile.

On Tuesday Belarus sentenced seven activists including senior opposition figure Pavel Severinets, to terms of four to seven years for their part in last year's protests, reports say.