Belarus plane: Russia accuses EU of risking passenger safetyon May 28, 2021 at 2:52 pm

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Russia condemns a decision to avoid Belarusian airspace over the arrest of a dissident journalist.

An Austrian Airlines plane left Vienna for Moscow on Friday morning (file pic)

image copyrightGetty Images

Russia’s foreign ministry has condemned the EU’s call for Europe-based airlines to avoid Belarusian airspace, calling it completely irresponsible.

Spokeswoman Maria Zakharova, commenting after Russia had denied entry to two airlines that planned to avoid Belarus, said passenger safety was at risk.

EU leaders had acted after Belarus forced a Ryanair plane to divert and land in the capital, Minsk.

A Belarusian dissident journalist and his girlfriend were then arrested.

Roman Protasevich and Sofia Sapega, who is a Russian citizen, are both in jail. A court on Friday rejected her appeal against a two-month detention.

The EU’s 27 leaders met this week and demanded their immediate release, as has the G7 group of nations.

The UN’s civil aviation agency has said it will launch a “fact-finding” investigation into Belarus’s actions, and whether there had been any breach of international aviation law.

No reason was given for Moscow’s decision to refuse access to flights from Air France and Austrian Airlines, but an Air France spokesperson said Russia’s requirement of a “new authorisation” was linked to the airline bypassing Belarusian airspace.

On Friday, Russia’s aviation authority allowed entry to several European airlines bypassing Belarus, including Austrian Airlines, although Air France did cancel another Paris-Moscow flight. The aviation agency warned that airlines that changed routes might have to await longer clearance times.

Arrivals board in Minsk

image copyrightMinsk Airport

Russia is Belarus’s biggest ally and Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko arrived in the Black Sea resort of Sochi on Friday for talks with President Vladimir Putin.

It is their third meeting this year.

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Analysis box by Steve Rosenberg, Moscow correspondent

Up till now Alexander Lukashenko has been masterful at playing on the Kremlin’s fears and phobias of the West, presenting himself as Russia’s first line of defence against alleged external threats. Claiming – without proof – that Nato, the US, Europe are plotting to gobble up Belarus, and then move on to Russia.

So, in the face of Western sanctions, in Sochi he will expect President Putin to back him politically and, crucially, financially. Especially since Russia and Belarus are, on paper at least, part of a union state.

Russian President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with his Belarusian counterpart Alexander Lukashenko during a meeting in Sochi, Russia February 22, 2021

image copyrightSputnik/Alexei Druzhinin/Kremlin

But although the two men are political allies, close friends they are not. There have been plenty of squabbles in the past. For years Moscow has been irritated by Mr Lukashenko’s attempts to play Russia off against the West. The Kremlin views him as something of a loose cannon.

After the Ryanair jet drama and the arrest of two passengers, it’s unclear what message the leader of Russia will be sending to the leader of Belarus.

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The foreign ministry spokeswoman denounced EU leaders for deciding to “redraw the routes of hundreds of flights in a single day, creating colossal problems for its citizens”.

Austria’s foreign ministry said Russia’s actions against the airline on Thursday had been “absolutely incomprehensible”.

On Friday, the rules were relaxed as Austrian Airlines flight OS601 from Vienna was given permission to land in Moscow,.

Among the EU’s immediate measures is a ban on Belarusian airlines over the airspace of its 27 member states. Ukraine is also banning Belarus-registered planes from its airspace from Saturday, having halted flights to and from Belarus.

Further sanctions are still being assessed on officials in Mr Lukashenko’s government and Belarusian economic sectors in particular.

Belarusian opposition figure Svetlana Tikhanovskaya with Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte on May 28, 2021

image copyrightReuters

After meeting exiled Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya in The Hague, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said it was time to target sectors “connected to the regime – and that is crucial because we have to hit these people in the wallet”.

Belarus will lose out on millions of dollars a year in over-flight fees as a result of European airlines avoiding its airspace.

The EU measures have also hit Belarus carrier Belavia, which has now cancelled 16 European routes.

Screenshot from FlightRadar24 website showing holding pattern of a flight

image copyrightFlightRadar24

The BBC’s Sarah Rainsford described lengthy queues outside Belavia offices in Minsk on Thursday as Belarusians scrambled to get ticket refunds.

In a separate move, the European Broadcasting Union said it was suspending Belarus state TV and radio, blaming suppression of media freedom. The company has two weeks to respond. Belarus was disqualified from this month’s Eurovision song contest, organised by the EBU, for lyrics seen as targeting anti-government protesters.

On Sunday, Ryanair Flight 4978 was travelling from Athens to Vilnius, when it was forcibly diverted to Minsk. A fighter jet was scrambled to ensure it changed course.

Belarus authorities said they had received a bomb threat, but according to Swiss secure email provider Proton Mail the emailed message was sent after the plane was diverted.

Aboard were Mr Protasevich, 26, who lives in exile in Lithuania, and his girlfriend, Ms Sapega, 23, an international law student. They were arrested as passengers disembarked the plane.

Mr Protasevich was put on the Belarus terrorist list last year, and faces serious charges.

On Thursday, Mr Protasevich was able to see his lawyer, Inesa Alenskaya, for the first time. “All is well, he is vigorous, positive and cheerful, there is nothing to worry about,” she was quoted as saying.

Russia’s foreign ministry says Ms Sapega is accused of breaking Belarusian law in August and September of 2020. Her lawyer said he had promised the court not to give details of the criminal case against her.

Videos were released showing the pair confessing to crimes, but it is likely they were speaking under duress.

Their arrests and the forced landing of the plane have prompted international outrage.

“We must have measures to ensure that can’t happen again,” the head of the International Air Transport Association, Willie Walsh, told Reuters.

The head of Lithuania’s criminal police bureau, Rolandas Kiskis, told reporters that the Ryanair crew and 90% of the passengers who had arrived in Vilnius had been questioned about their ordeal. His team were working with other European investigators, he said.

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.

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