Belarusian blogger Roman Protasevich, detained when a Ryanair plane was forced to land in Minsk, appears in video (Reuters)
BRUSSELS/KIEV: Several airlines said on Monday they would avoid Belarusian airspace after Belarus scrambled a warplane to intercept a Ryanair jetliner and arrest a dissident journalist in an act denounced by Western powers as “state piracy”. EU leaders meeting on Monday evening were set to ban Belarussian airlines from their bloc’s airspace and call on EU-based carriers to avoid flying over the former Soviet republic, according to a draft statement seen by Reuters. The leaders of the 27 member states will also consider widening the list of Belarussian individuals they already sanctioned and call on the International Civil Aviation Organization to urgently investigate Sunday’s incident.
Irish foreign minister Simon Coveney said: “This was effectively aviation piracy, state sponsored.” The three Baltic states said Belarusian airspace should be declared “unsafe” and Belarus and Latvia said they were expelling each other’s ambassadors. Britain said it was issuing a notice to instruct British airlines to cease flights over Belarus and that it would suspend the air permit for Belarus’s national carrier Belavia. Latvian airline airBaltic and Scandinavian airline SAS, Poland’s LOT and Hungarian airline Wizzair said they would not use Belarusian airspace.
Countries also called for the release of Roman Protasevich, who was detained when the plane was forced to land in Minsk. His social media feed from exile has been one of the last remaining independent outlets for news about Belarus since a mass crackdown on dissent last year. Sophia Sapega, a student travelling with him, was also detained. Ryanair boss Michael O’Leary said he believed security agents had been on the flight. Lithuanian authorities said five passengers never arrived, suggesting three others besides Protasevich and Sapega had disembarked in Minsk.
The Belarus interior ministry meanwhile said on Monday that Protasevich is being held in a jail in Minsk and dismissed unconfirmed reports that he was hospitalised with a heart condition.