26 May 2021

European airlines reroute flights to avoid Belarus

7:54 am on 26 May 2021

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.

A video of Roman Protasevich in detention was released on Monday. The undated video was made available by anonymously-sourced Telegram channel Nevolf and shared on social media and Belarus State TV.

A video of Roman Protasevich was released on Monday. Photo: AFP / Telegram Channel Nevolf

Ukraine and Poland are stopping all flights to and from the country, while the UK is preventing Belarusian airlines from entering its airspace.

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 Protasevich that appears to have been recorded under duress.

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.

On Tuesday, the Belarusian transport ministry released a transcript of a conversation said to be between an air traffic controller in Minsk and a pilot on Sunday's Ryanair flight.

According to the transcript, which has not been independently verified, Belarus suggested several times that the plane should land in Minsk on "our recommendation".

This appeared to contradict earlier statements from the Belarusian authorities that said the decision to land was made independently by the pilot.

What's 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.

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.

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.

The UK said Belarusian airlines would not be allowed to enter its airspace unless they had specific authorisation.

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.

A Belarusian dog handler checks luggages off a Ryanair Boeing 737-8AS (flight number FR4978) parked at Minsk International Airport on 23 May 2021.

Belarus said the flight had been diverted because of a bomb threat from the Palestinian militant group Hamas. Hamas has denied any involvement, while German leader Chancellor Angela Merkel said the Belarusian claim was "completely implausible". Photo: AFP / ONLINER.BY

Earlier on Tuesday, European Council President Charles Michel shared a map of air traffic taken from the flight tracking website Flightradar24 in which there appeared to be no planes in Belarusian airspace. Some flights, however, have continued throughout the day.

Some 400 flights use Belarusian airspace daily and 100 of these are by EU or UK carriers, according to the European air traffic agency, Eurocontrol. It has urged the airlines concerned to reroute through nearby countries.

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 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.

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. For going on holiday with Roman Protasevich? It's his life. What he does is exclusively his choice," she said.

Protasevich is a former editor of Nexta, a media operation with a Telegram channel. He left Belarus in 2019 to live in exile in Lithuania. From there he covered the events of the 2020 presidential election, after which he was charged with terrorism and inciting riots.

Nexta played a key role for the opposition during the vote. It has continued to do so in its aftermath, particularly with the government imposing news blackouts. Protasevich now works for a different Telegram channel, Belamova.

Protasevich's father has told the BBC he fears his son may be tortured. Dmitri Protasevich said on Monday he was "really afraid" of how his son would be treated by the authorities in his home country.

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.

Belarus: The basics

Where is Belarus? It has its ally Russia to the east and Ukraine to the south. To the north and west lie EU and Nato members Latvia, Lithuania and Poland.

Why does it matter? Like Ukraine, this nation of 9.5 million is caught in rivalry between the West and Russia. President Lukashenko has been nicknamed "Europe's last dictator" - he has been in power for 27 years.

What's going on there? There is a huge opposition movement demanding new, democratic leadership and economic reform. The opposition movement and Western governments say Mr Lukashenko rigged the 9 August election. Officially he won by a landslide. A huge police crackdown has curbed street protests and sent opposition leaders to prison or into exile.