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Ryanair Chief Warns Against 'Politicizing' Airspace, Says Ban On Flying Over Belarus Untenable In Long Term

Ryanair Chief Executive Michael O'Leary (file photo)
Ryanair Chief Executive Michael O'Leary (file photo)

The chief executive of Ryanair says he opposes a long-term ban on flights over Belarus, warning that it’s dangerous to politicize a country’s airspace.

Michael O'Leary said the forced landing of a Ryanair flight on May 23 in Minsk was carried out on false pretenses in what was "clearly a premeditated breach of all the international aviation rules."

But he argued that the international response to halt flights over Belarus was not tenable in the long-term.

O’Leary testified before the British Parliament's Transport Select Committee on June 15 about the diversion of the Ryanair flight, which was en route from Athens to Vilnius.

After the flight landed in Minsk, authorities detained two passengers -- Belarusian opposition blogger Raman Pratasevich and his Russian girlfriend, Sofia Sapega, -- sparking global outrage.

Belarusian traffic controllers told Ryanair pilots to divert the flight, citing a bomb threat that proved to be false. A Belarusian military jet was sent to accompany the plane.

Britain and the European Union responded by telling airlines to avoid Belarusian airspace and banning the country's flagship carrier Belavia.

"This is not in our long-term interests, of the industry, or in our passengers' best interests," O’Leary told the committee, noting that flights between the U.K. and Asia, for example, now have to fly around Belarus.

"It is a very dangerous territory we are in, if we're going to start politicizing overfly and flying rights over any country," O’Leary added.

The chief executive of the U.K.'s Civil Aviation Authority, Richard Moriarty, said he agreed with O'Leary on the need to get back to what is “the protocol of civil aviation around overflights."

"If it is the case that this was a forced diversion under pretext, that really is an exceptional event in the last 70 years," said Moriarty.

Belarus's ambassador to London, Maksim Yermalovich, declined an invitation to give evidence to the committee.

But in a statement he criticized Britain's decision to suspend Belavia's operating permit, saying it went "far beyond the spirit of cooperation."

The diversion of the Ryanair flight is currently being investigated by the UN’s International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), which is due to issue a report in the coming weeks.

The 26-year-old Pratasevich was a key administrator of the Telegram channel, Nexta-Live, which has been covering mass protests denouncing the official results of the Belarusian presidential election last August, which handed authoritarian ruler Alyaksandr Lukashenka a sixth presidential term.

The opposition says the vote was rigged and that opposition leader Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya was the victor.

Tsikhanouskaya also addressed British lawmakers on June 15, urging them to impose tougher sanctions on Lukashenka.

She told the Foreign Affairs Committee that now is the time "when all should unite and put more pressure on this regime. We have to use this moment."

Making a plea similar to the one she made last week before U.S. lawmakers, Tsikhanouskaya called for new sanctions against Belarusian state-owned enterprises that are “fueling the regime" and against individual "businessmen and oligarchs" and suggested targeting Belarusian sovereign debt.

Tsikhanouskaya also asked the U.K. to help bring about democratic elections in the ex-Soviet state and suggested the U.K. could initiate a preliminary discussion" on an "international high-level political conference on resolving the crisis" and invite representatives of Russia and the Belarusian regime.

With reporting by AFP and Reuters
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