European planes skirt Belarus amid fury at dissident arrest

Tanya Simon
May 25, 2021

Belarus' isolation deepened Tuesday as commercial planes avoided its airspace, the European Union worked up new sanctions, and a senior United Nations official said he was concerned for the welfare of an opposition journalist arrested in Minsk after his plane was diverted there, apparently on the orders of the country's longtime strongman.

On Sunday he was pulled off a flight from Greece to Lithuania forced down in the Belarusian capital Minsk.

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.

Exiled opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya urged the worldwide community to go further in isolating the regime. We condemn it and call for his immediate release.

In the Commons on Monday, he said: "It's very hard to believe that this kind of action could have been taken without at least the acquiescence of the authorities in Moscow, but, as I say, it's unclear as yet".

In 2020, Lukashenko won another election but opposition groups said the vote was corrupt. Last year, opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya raised suspicions when she appeared to read from a script in a video where she requested that supporters refrain from attending anti-government demonstrations.

He had been living between Poland and Lithuania.

The move led to the arrest of Pratasevich, a 26-year-old activist and journalist who left Belarus in 2019 and faced charges there of inciting riots.

His allies however say the video was made under pressure from authorities.

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

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Moreover, a request by leaders for the European Commission to prepare a report on Russian Federation relations seemed to pale in comparison to the news earlier on Monday that Putin and U.S. President Joe Biden would hold a summit meeting next month in Switzerland.

"I just want to say that my son is simply a hero, simply a hero", Natalia Protasevich said, weeping.

"He would never speak like that".

Belarus said its ground controllers had given guidance to the flight but had not ordered it to land.

The EU and the United States imposed several rounds of financial sanctions against Minsk previous year, which had no effect on the behaviour of authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko, who withstood mass demonstrations against his rule after a disputed election.

Pratasevich, shown arriving for a court hearing in Minsk in 2017, was detained Sunday after the plane he was on was diverted to the Belarusian capital.

Belarus forces Ryanair flight down, detains this passenger: Who is Roman Protasevich? .

Neighbouring Ukraine has also said it would halt direct flights between the two countries and over Belarus. "It is a reminder of the illegitimacy of the regime claiming authority in Minsk", read a joint statement signed by representatives from several European Union countries, the United Kingdom and the United States, who called for an inquiry by the International Civil Aviation Organization. More than 34,000 people have been arrested in Belarus since then, and thousands beaten.

Lukashenko has stayed in office since August amid widespread street protests after claiming victory in a disputed presidential election.

Authorities have in recent months imposed a series of jail sentences on organisers, participants and journalists over the protests.

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