Belarus: Russia bars flights for avoiding ally over forced Ryanair plane grounding

Russia has denied entry to two European airline planes because they planned to avoid flying over Belarus to reach Moscow.

Air France and Austrian Airlines both had to cancel flights after Russia refused to let them change their routes, fuelling speculation the Kremlin might be looking at a blanket ban in support of its ex-Soviet ally.

However, it was reported by the RBC news outlet on Friday that Russia will allow flights to arrive and leave that bypass Belarusian airspace.

But Russia’s federal aviation agency Rosaviatsiya has told airlines that changes to routes over an escalating diplomatic row may result in longer clearance times because of an increase in requests.

The UK and EU had advised operators to avoid flying over Belarus after the government forced a Ryanair plane to divert to the country under fighter jet escort to arrest a prominent critic, sparking international outrage and further sanctions.

Opposition journalist Roman Protasevich, 26, was detained along with his Russian girlfriend, Sofia Sapega, 23, and in a video released by Belarusian authorities on Monday evening, appeared to admit – allegedly under duress – he was involved in organising mass protests in Minsk last year.

NATO’s secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg has told Sky News it is likely that Moscow was involved in the Belarus plane “hijacking”.

Russia is a strong supporter of the authoritarian regime of Alexander Lukashenko, who has been president of Belarus since the office was established in 1994.

He won re-election for a sixth time in 2020 with 80% of the vote, in a poll deemed “neither free nor fair” by the EU.

Since winning the disputed election last August, Mr Lukashenko has cracked down on critics, with many opposition figures arrested and others forced into exile.

Meanwhile, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab has welcomed an investigation by the United Nations’ International
Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) into the grounding of the Ryanair plane in Minsk on the pretext of a bomb threat.

He wrote on Twitter: “We want the full circumstances that led to this violation of international law investigated & made public.

“We will defend the principles that underpin civil aviation.”

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It comes as Mr Lukashenko heads to Russia amid the deepening diplomatic row and his increasing international isolation.

He is set to meet with Russian leader Vladimir Putin at his Black Sea residence in Sochi for talks on closer economic ties, according to the Kremlin.

Mr Lukashenko has defended his actions and hit out at the West for trying to “strangle” his country with sanctions.

In the past, the Belarusian leader has often tried to play Russia off against other countries, raising the prospect of improved relations with the EU and the US to secure more subsidies and concessions out of Moscow.

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