Europe's aviation regulator has urged all airlines to avoid Belarusian airspace for safety reasons as the country’s authoritarian leader, Alyaksandr Lukashenka, defended his decision to use the military to help force the diversion of a civilian aircraft traveling between EU members Greece and Lithuania to land in the capital, Minsk, where authorities immediately arrested a journalist and his girlfriend.
Amid international condemnation over the incident that some world leaders called a "state hijacking," the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) said on May 26 it was advising EU airlines, as well as non-EU carriers flying to or from the bloc, to avoid Belarusian airways except in emergencies.
The announcement came as Lukashenka told lawmakers in Minsk that he "acted lawfully" to protect people as Belarusian authorities had received a bomb scare from Switzerland, which proved to be a false alarm.
After a wave of pro-democracy protests and Western sanctions following a disputed presidential election in August 2020, the diversion of the Ryanair plane has renewed pressure on Lukashenka, with Western leaders demanding the release of journalist Raman Pratasevich and his girlfriend, Sofia Sapega.
The EU had already begun to cut air links with the increasingly isolated Eastern European nation even before the EASA warning on May 26.
Airlines such as Air France, Lufthansa, and Singapore Airlines have already begun rerouting flights to avoid Belarusian airspace, and Latvia on May 26 became the latest European country to announce it won’t authorize any departing or arriving flights that cross Belarusian airspace. The Transport Ministry said it had also banned Belarusian airlines from entering Latvian airspace.
"The circumstances surrounding this action cast serious doubts on the respect shown by Belarus for international civil aviation rules," the EASA said in a safety bulletin.
"The actions undertaken by Belarus amounted to an increased safety risk for the [Ryanair] flight and put into question the ability of Belarus to provide safe air navigation services."
On May 26, a Belarusian passenger plane flying from Minsk to Barcelona turned back after Poland said it may not be able to enter French airspace.
Belarusian state carrier Belavia flight 2869 from Minsk had been scheduled to land in Barcelona on May 26 in the afternoon.
"This pilot received information from us that the French airspace was blocked ... and he may have a problem with entering," Polish Air Navigation Services Agency spokesman Pawel Lukasiewicz said by telephone.
Belarusian Foreign Ministry spokesman Anatol Hlaz called the move "air piracy."
Meanwhile, the North Atlantic Council, NATO's principal political decision-making body, says it supports calls for an urgent independent investigation into Belarus’s forced diversion of the Ryanair passenger jet.
"This unacceptable act seriously violated the norms governing civil aviation and endangered the lives of the passengers and crew," the allies said in a statement on May 26.
Besides calling for a probe into the matter, including by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), the North Atlantic Council backed "measures taken by Allies individually and collectively in response to this incident."
It also urged Belarus to "immediately and unconditionally" release Pratasevich and Sapega, calling the journalist's arrest "an affront to the principles of political dissent and freedom of the press."
"NATO Allies call on Belarus to respect fundamental human rights and freedoms, and to abide by the rules-based international order," the statement said.
The UN Security Council is set to meet behind closed doors later on May 26, but diplomats were quoted as saying it was unlikely council members would agree on a collective statement because of Russia’s unwavering support for Lukashenka.
Authorities in both Belarus and Russia have dismissed the outrage over the May 23 incident, saying Minsk had acted within the law when the plane was diverted.
Lukashenka, who has ruled Belarus since 1994 and has been dubbed "Europe's last dictator," lashed out at the West, accusing it of crossing "many red lines" with its reaction to the incident, and warned that Belarus was on the brink of an "icy war" with its enemies trying to undermine his rule.
"As we predicted, our ill-wishers at home and abroad have changed their methods of attacking the state. They have crossed many red lines and crossed boundaries of common sense and human morality," Lukashenka said as he addressed members of parliament.
The 26-year-old Pratasevich is facing charges of being behind civil disturbances, an offense punishable by up to 15 years in prison.
He was a key administrator of the Telegram channel, Nexta-Live, which has been covering the protests that broke out in Belarus following last year’s presidential election.
A video released on May 24 showed Pratasevich "confessing" to having organized anti-government demonstrations.
European leaders, suspecting that the comments were made under duress, called the video "concerning," while exiled Belarusian opposition leader Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya said the footage showed Pratasevich had been tortured.
Belarusian officials did not immediately comment on the torture allegations but have consistently denied abusing detainees even though rights groups have documented hundreds of cases of what they describe as abuse and forced confessions during the sometimes violent crackdown on pro-democracy opponents of Lukashenka since the disputed election.
Sapega, a 23-year-old Russian citizen, was studying for a master's degree at the European State University in Vilnius, Lithuania.
Belarusian authorities remanded her in pretrial detention for two months after being charged with a criminal offense, her lawyer said on May 25.
In another video circulated by pro-government Telegram channels, Sapega said she was an editor of an opposition Telegram channel, the Black Book Of Belarus, which publishes personal information about security officials who help Lukashenka stay in power.
Sapega looked uncomfortable and spoke quickly while delivering the comments, prompting opposition officials to again say the statements appear forced.
Amid the controversy, EU leaders continue to look to the bloc's officials to draw up unspecified new sanctions against Minsk and to work out a way to ban Belarusian airlines from the bloc's skies.
If all such measures are fully implemented, Belarus would be almost completely isolated from air travel with flights reaching it only by passing over its eastern border with Russia.
Crisis In Belarus
Read our ongoing coverage as Belarusian strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka continues his brutal crackdown on NGOs, activists, and independent media following the August 2020 presidential election, widely seen as fraudulent.
The government of EU member Latvia on May 26 announced it had banned Belarusian airlines from entering its airspace and told all aircraft landing or taking off from its airports to avoid Belarusian airspace.
The EU, United States, Canada, and other Western countries have already imposed sanctions against the regime of Lukashenka.
The Belarusian opposition and the West say the August presidential election was fraudulent and don’t recognize the result. The opposition says Tsikhanouskaya was the true winner of the vote.
In a joint statement on May 26, Tsikhanouskaya, the Coordinating Council that was set up by opposition leaders following a disputed presidential election last year, and other pro-democracy groups said that they “are united in assessing that Belarus has become a ‘black spot’ on the world map as a result of the reckless actions of the illegitimate regime."