The leaders of the 27 countries of the European Union will ban all flights of Belarusian companies over their airspace and deny access to the airports of the bloc, in reaction to the forced landing by the Belarusian dictatorship of a Ryanair plane traveling from Greece to Lithuania on Sunday (23).
Under the false threat of a bomb and escorted by a fighter plane and a Belarusian military helicopter, the flight was rerouted to Minsk, where at least two people were arrested by the regime: journalists Roman Protassevich and his girlfriend, Sofia Sapega.
EU officials who attended the European Council meeting said leaders viewed the maneuver as a serious risk to the safety of Ryanair passengers and aviation in general. According to them, there was a rapid consensus on the measures to be taken.
The incident drew international criticism on Sunday and, before the EU decision, companies from at least five countries in the bloc – Austria, Finland, Latvia, Lithuania and Hungary – had already stopped crossing Belarus. Hours earlier, in the United Kingdom, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab announced the same measure and revoked the operating license of Belavia, the Belarusian airline.
Although not a relevant destination for European companies, Belarus is a territory flown over by many of them, especially after the start of the armed conflict in eastern Ukraine in 2014. The country has also been used as a means to bypass restrictions on Russia for seven years. years, and the use of airspace makes money for the Lukashenko dictatorship.
According to Eurocontrol, the European airspace controller, around 2,500 routes flew over the country last week. Of this total, around 400 were operated by Belavia. The agency was already working with air navigation entities in countries neighboring Belarus to allow route diversion.
The EU’s decision, taken this Monday evening (24) at a meeting of the European Council, includes economic sanctions against this eastern European country and an expansion of the list of around one hundred Belarusians, including Lukashenko, already under restrictions due to the brutal crackdown on protests that called for new elections, after a vote deemed rigged in August 2020.
The UK is also considering new sanctions against the Belarusian regime and called on the country’s ambassador to explain the incident, which Raab called “a reckless, cynical and dangerous kidnapping”. state piracy ”.
“This shocking act of the Lukashenko regime endangered the lives of more than 120 passengers, including US citizens,” US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement. Like the European Council, it demanded the immediate release of the jailed journalists.
Accused by the dictatorship of three crimes linked to the protests against Lukashenko, Portassevich was in exile in Lithuania and returning from Greece, where he had covered the participation of opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya in an event. Realizing the plane was being diverted to Minsk, he told the crew he was putting their lives in danger.
EU leaders also urged the International Civil Aviation Organization to urgently investigate “the unprecedented and unacceptable incident” – earlier the UN-linked entity said the action could have violated the treaty protecting the spatial sovereignty of nations.
Lithuania said it has opened two investigations into the episode – for hijacking and forced landing – and NATO (military alliance of Western countries) has called for an international investigation.
In a succession of mixed statements, the Belarusian dictatorship has denied hijacking the Ryanair flight to arrest the journalist and accused European countries of politicizing the incident. “There is no doubt that the actions of our competent bodies were in accordance with international rules,” said the Foreign Ministry.
The aviation department also blamed the bomb threat on Hamas, the Islamist group that rules Gaza. According to the version, a message was sent in English saying, “We, the Hamas soldiers, demand that Israel cease fire in the Gaza Strip. We demand that the European Union renounce its support for Israel in this war. The conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, however, ended on the 20th.
Hamas denied the Belarusian government’s request.