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Belarus Plane: Russia Accuses EU of Risking Passenger Safety

Russia’s foreign ministry has condemned the EU’s call for Europe-based airlines to avoid Belarusian airspace, calling it completely irresponsible. Spokeswoman Maria Zakharova, commenting after Russia had denied entry to two

Russia’s foreign ministry has condemned the EU’s call for Europe-based airlines to avoid Belarusian airspace, calling it completely irresponsible.

Spokeswoman Maria Zakharova, commenting after Russia had denied entry to two airlines that planned to avoid Belarus, said passenger safety was at risk.

EU leaders had acted after Belarus forced a Ryanair plane to divert and land in the capital, Minsk.

A Belarusian dissident journalist and his girlfriend were then arrested.

Roman Protasevich and Sofia Sapega are both in jail. A court on Friday rejected Ms Sapega’s appeal against her two-month detention.

The EU’s 27 leaders met this week and demanded their immediate release, as has the G7 group of nations.

The UN’s civil aviation agency has said it will launch a “fact-finding” investigation into Belarus’s actions, and whether there had been any breach of international aviation law.

No reason was given for Moscow’s decision to refuse access to flights from Air France and Austrian Airlines, but an Air France spokesperson said Russia’s requirement of a “new authorisation” was linked to the airline bypassing Belarusian airspace.

On Friday, Russia’s aviation authority allowed entry to several European airlines bypassing Belarus, including Austrian Airlines, although Air France did cancel another Paris-Moscow flight.

The aviation agency warned that airlines that changed routes might have to await longer clearance times.

Russia is Belarus’s biggest ally and President Vladimir Putin is set to discuss the unfolding crisis with Belarus leader Alexander Lukashenko in the Black Sea resort of Sochi on Friday.

It is their third meeting this year.

Up till now Alexander Lukashenko has been masterful at playing on the Kremlin’s fears and phobias of the West, presenting himself as Russia’s first line of defence against alleged external threats. Claiming – without proof – that Nato, the US, Europe are plotting to gobble up Belarus, and then move on to Russia.

So, in the face of Western sanctions, in Sochi he will expect President Putin to back him politically and, crucially, financially. Especially since Russia and Belarus are, on paper at least, part of a union state.

But although the two men are political allies, close friends they are not. There have been plenty of squabbles in the past. For years Moscow has been irritated by Mr Lukashenko’s attempts to play Russia off against the West. The Kremlin views him as something of a loose cannon.

After the Ryanair jet drama and the arrest of two passengers, it’s unclear what message the leader of Russia will be sending to the leader of Belarus.

In a Facebook post, the foreign ministry spokeswoman denounced EU leaders for deciding to “redraw the routes of hundreds of flights in a single day, creating colossal problems for its citizens”.

Austria’s foreign ministry said Russia’s actions against the airline on Thursday had been “absolutely incomprehensible”.

On Friday, the rules were relaxed as Austrian Airlines flight OS601 from Vienna was given permission to land in Moscow, and it arrived at 13:46 local time (10:46 GMT).

Among the EU’s immediate measures is a ban on Belarusian airlines over the airspace of its 27 member states.

Further sanctions are still being assessed on officials in Mr Lukashenko’s government and Belarusian economic sectors in particular.

EU foreign ministers met in Portugal on Thursday and defence ministers were discussing measures on Friday.

Ukraine is also banning Belarus-registered planes from its airspace from Saturday, having halted flights to and from Belarus on Wednesday.

Belarus will lose out on millions of dollars a year in over-flight fees as a result of European airlines avoiding its airspace.

The EU measures have also hit Belarus carrier Belavia, which has cancelled 12 European routes until 30 October. The BBC’s Sarah Rainsford described lengthy queues outside Belavia offices on Thursday as Belarusians scrambled to get refunds for their tickets.

Flight-tracking website Flightradar24 showed a spiral holding pattern of one Belavia flight on Wednesday as it tried, and failed, to enter Polish airspace.

In common with the rest of the EU, Poland has banned Belarus flights from flying over its territory. The BBC has contacted Belavia for clarification on why it turned back.

What Caused the Dispute

On Sunday, Ryanair Flight 4978 was travelling from Athens to Vilnius, when it was forcibly diverted to Minsk. A fighter jet was scrambled to tail the plane and ensure it changed course.

Belarus authorities said they had received a bomb threat, but according to a Swiss secure email provider the emailed message was sent after the plane was diverted.

Aboard were Mr Protasevich, 26, who lives in exile in Lithuania, and his girlfriend, Ms Sapega, 23, an international law student. They were arrested as passengers disembarked the plane.

Mr Protasevich was put on the Belarus terrorist list last year, and faces serious charges.

On Thursday, Mr Protasevich was able to see his lawyer for the first time.

“All is well, he is vigorous, positive and cheerful, there is nothing to worry about,” Inesa Alenskaya was quoted as saying by the Belorusskiye Novosti website, adding she could not give any more information.

Russia’s foreign ministry says Ms Sapega is accused of breaking Belarusian law in August and September of 2020. Her lawyer said he had promised the court not to give details of the criminal case against her.

Videos were released showing the pair confessing to crimes, but it is likely they were speaking under duress.

The forced landing of the plane and their arrest caused international outrage.

“We must have measures to ensure that can’t happen again,” the head of the International Air Transport Association, Willie Walsh, told Reuters.

The head of Lithuania’s criminal police bureau, Rolandas Kiskis, told reporters that the crew and 90% of the passengers who arrived in Vilnius had been questioned about their ordeal. He said his colleagues were working with Greek, Irish and Polish authorities while the FBI in the US had begun its own investigation.

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