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Unfriendly skies


The details are astonishing – an EU-flagged passenger plane travelling from Athens to Vilnius is told, whilst flying over Belarus, that a bomb is onboard, supposedly planted by the Palestinian militant group Hamas in revenge for EU support of Israel (Hamas, an odd candidate for such an attack to begin with, has since rejected the accusation). The Ryanair pilots are informed that it must change course; in line with standard protocol, they do so. Escorted by a fighter jet, the aircraft is brought to Minsk, where Belarusian security forces forcibly remove a dissident journalist, Roman Protasevich, and his partner, Sofia Sapega. A number of Russian nationals are also reportedly removed from the plane (given the close links between Belarus’s Lukashenko regime and Putin’s Russia, there are suspicions the passengers were part of the operation against Protasevich). Russia has since dismissed this as untrue. Security forces are (inevitably) unable to find the phantom bomb and, after hours of being held hostage on the tarmac, the plane is released. Shortly after, the Ryanair press office published a statement confirming that the aircraft arrived safely at its intended destination following its detention (the Irish carrier subsequently revised their press release to label the diversion “an act of aviation piracy”). Protasevich remains in the custody of Belarusian authorities. This brazen act, carried out under the pretence of averting an act of terror, has provoked anger from all quarters. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen called the incident a “state hijacking”. “This is an attack on democracy. This is an attack on freedom of expression. And this is an attack on European sovereignty. And this outrageous behaviour needs a strong answer,” she told a press conference on Monday (24 May). US Secretary of State, Antony J Blinken, said in a statement that “this shocking act perpetrated by the Lukashenko regime endangered the lives of more than 120 passengers”. It is particularly egregious that a country would use false security threats to manipulate the route of an aircraft. Doing so will undermine trust in the aviation system, according to the European Cockpit Association, a group representing pilots. “This unprecedented act of unlawful interference will potentially upend all the assumptions about the safest response to bomb threats on flight and interceptions,” the ECA said in a statement, calling on Ryanair to support the cabin crew and pilots’ “physical and mental well-being after such a challenging and stressful event”. That Belarus would consider the fallout from detaining an EU aircraft acceptable collateral damage to nab a journalist is itself disturbing. In dramatic fashion, the saga exposes the risk of charting a flight path through unfriendly skies. EU leaders reacted swiftly, using this week’s EU summit to agree on a series of sanctions and security measures to hurt the Belarusian regime. In addition to yet-to-be-defined sanctions against individuals, the European Council called on EU-based carriers to avoid flying over Belarus. Belarusian flights are also banned from entering EU airspace. The decision will cause headaches for carriers who must now reroute all flights heading to the Baltic states or further afield through Poland and neighbouring countries, avoiding the Lukashenko-controlled airspace. But the administrative burden and extra fuel costs seem a small price to pay for safety. This story is still unfolding. Details are coming into focus as time goes by. But some aspects are already clear – the consequences of Belarus’s actions will continue to reverberate across the aviation sector, and across geopolitics, for some time.


Sanctions on Belarus


Western powers prepared to pile sanctions on Belarus and cut off its aviation links on Monday (24 May), furious after it scrambled a warplane to intercept a Ryanair aircraft and arrest a dissident journalist, an act one leader denounced as ‘state piracy’.


Belarus strongman Alexander Lukashenko sparked international outrage by dispatching a fighter jet Sunday to intercept a Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius carrying wanted reporter Roman Protasevich, 26, and his girlfriend Sofia Sapega. To add insult to injury, Belarusian state television broadcast a 30-second video of Protasevich, who had been living between Lithuania and Poland, confirming that he was in prison in Minsk and “confessing” to charges of organising mass unrest. The footage showed Protasevich — who could face 15 years in jail — with dark markings visible on his forehead, saying he was being treated “according to the law”.


The comments were immediately dismissed by his allies as having been made under duress.

European Union leaders meeting in Brussels called for Belarusian airlines to be banned from the 27-nation bloc’s airspace and urged EU-based carriers to avoid flying over the former Soviet republic, according to a joint statement.


They also agreed to widen the list of Belarusian individuals they already sanction and called on the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) to urgently investigate Belarus forcing a Ryanair plane to land in Minsk on a Greece-Lithuania flight on Sunday.


“The reaction should be swift and be severe,” Belgian Prime Minister Alexander de Croo told journalists ahead of the EU summit that began at 1700 GMT.


“We will not tolerate any attempt to play Russian roulette with the lives of innocent civilians,” EU chief Charles Michel said.


Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney, using language that was echoed by a number of other EU countries, said: “This was effectively aviation piracy, state sponsored.”


The EU and other Western countries also called for the release of Protasevich, who was detained when the plane landed. 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. Sofia Sapega, a 23-year-old student travelling with him, was also detained.


Together with co-founder Stepan Putilo, Protasevich until recently ran the Nexta channel on messaging app Telegram, which helped organise the protests that were the biggest challenge to Lukashenko’s 26-year rule. With close to two million subscribers on the service, Nexta Live and its sister channel Nexta are prominent opposition channels and helped mobilise protesters in Belarus. Protasevich and Putilo were added to Belarus’s list of “individuals involved in terrorist activity” last year.


Options appear limited


Some airlines and countries did not wait for guidance on how to respond to the diversion of the Ryanair flight. Britain said it was instructing British airlines to cease flights over Belarus and that it would suspend the air permit for Belarus’s national carrier Belavia with immediate effect. KLM, the Dutch arm of carrier Air France KLM, will temporarily halt flights, Dutch news agency ANP reported. Still, the options for Western retaliation appear limited.


The Montreal-based ICAO has no regulatory power, and the EU has no authority over flights taking off and landing in Belarus or flying over its airspace, apart from direct flights that originate or land in Europe. Belarus lies on the flight path of routes within Europe and between Europe and Asia, and skirting Belarus would slow flights down and cost airlines money.


The EU and the United States imposed several rounds of financial sanctions against Minsk last year, which had no effect on the behaviour of authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko, who withstood mass demonstrations against his rule after a disputed election. Lukashenko denies election fraud. Since the disputed vote, authorities rounded up thousands of his opponents, with all major opposition figures now in jail or exile.


‘Bomb threat’


NEXTA, the 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.


“I just want to say that my son is simply a hero, simply a hero,” Natalia Protasevich said, weeping. “I truly hope that the international community will wake up for him.”


Belarus says it acted in response to a false bomb threat written in the name of the Palestinian militant group Hamas. Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum denied his group had any knowledge or connection to the matter. Belarus said its ground controllers had given guidance to the flight but had not ordered it to land. State media said the intervention was ordered personally by Lukashenko.


Ryanair boss Michael O’Leary, who referred to the incident as a state-sponsored hijacking, said he believed security agents had been on the flight. Lithuanian authorities said five passengers never arrived, suggesting three others besides detainees Protasevich and Sapega had disembarked in Minsk.


US President Joe Biden slammed the forced diversion of the plane and arrest of Protasevich as “a direct affront to international norms” and said the video appeared to have been made “under duress”.


“I welcome the news that the European Union has called for targeted economic sanctions and other measures, and have asked my team to develop appropriate options to hold accountable those responsible,” Biden said, in a White House statement.


NATO slammed a “serious and dangerous incident” and said envoys from the military alliance were to discuss it on Tuesday. Britain’s Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab raised the possibility of that Russia had backed the operation.


“It’s very difficult to believe that this kind of action could have been taken without at least the acquiescence of the authorities in Moscow,” he told parliament. But Russia has dismissed the outrage in the West.


Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Minsk was taking an “absolutely reasonable approach” while ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova mocked the Western indignation. “We are shocked that the West calls the incident in Belarusian air space ‘shocking,'” Zakharova said on Facebook, accusing Western nations of “kidnappings, forced landings and illegal arrests”.



© Sean Carroll / Euractive News

Images - Tyler McDowell




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