Belarus flights redirected after Roman Protasevich’s arrest

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 video of Mr 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.

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.

Belarusian security officials with with a sniffer dog checking the luggage of passengers in front of the diverted Ryanair flight at Minsk airport. Photo: 23 May 2021

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 Mr 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.

Sofia Sapega

The incident has drawn sharp condemnation from across the world, with countries urging the immediate release of

Mr Protasevich and a full investigation.

Ms Sapega’s mother told the news 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. For going 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.

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