European planes skirt Belarus amid fury at dissident arrest

Cheryl Sanders
May 25, 2021

This comes after a Ryanair flight from Greece to Lithuania was forced to land in Minsk by Belarussian authorities, which then arrested blogger and journalist Roman Protasevich, who was critical of the autocratic government and played a role in the democracy movement.

His social media feed from exile has been one of the last remaining independent outlets for news about the country since a mass crackdown on dissent a year ago.

European leaders on Monday agreed to impose sectoral sanctions on Belarus and to bar E.U. airlines from flying over the country as well as banning Belarus's national airline from flying over or landing in E.U. territory.

"A representative of the Belarusian foreign ministry. stressed the readiness of the Belarusian authorities to act on the issue in a transparent manner and to follow all global rules", said Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov during a press conference following a meeting with his Greek counterpart. Sofia Sapega, a 23-year-old student travelling with him, was also detained.

Minister Coveney, meanwhile, says the plane was "effectively ordered" to land in Minsk. KLM, the Dutch arm of carrier Air France KLM, will temporarily halt flights, Dutch news agency ANP reported.

Michael O'Leary, the Ryanair CEO, has said he believes Belarusian KGB agents went on to board the flight - presumably to oversee the operation that was about to unfold.

Protasevich faces charges of inciting mass rallies in Belarus following last summer's disputed presidential election which triggered an unprecedented wave of protest across the country. 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.

NEXTA, a news service where Protasevich worked before setting up his own widely followed blog, ran an interview with his mother, who said that as soon as she heard reports of a bomb scare on a flight, she knew it was a plot to capture him.

To his father, Dzmitry Protasevich, the video comments on Monday seemed to be a result of coercion. "He is acting very reserved and you can see he is nervous", Protasevich said of his son. Belarus says it was responding to a bomb scare that later proved to be a false alarm.

On Monday, the pressure on Belarus increased.

European countries moved to isolate Belarus on Monday by cutting air ties after it provoked an worldwide outcry by forcing a commercial airliner to land so it could arrest an opposition activist.

The Greek national said that he asked the airport officials to disembark in Minsk, which in any case, was his final destination.

Russian Federation has said it is still too early to comment on the Ryanair incident, while accusing Western countries of hypocrisy and noting that a Bolivian presidential plane was diverted to Austria in 2013 after reports it was carrying USA intelligence leaker Edward Snowden.

Other reports by iNewsToday