European airlines skirt Belarus over scribe's arrest
European airlines were skirting Belarus on Tuesday after the European Union urged them to do so while imposing new sanctions against Belarus to punish it for the forced diversion of a passenger jet to arrest an opposition journalist.
EU leaders agreed at a summit on Monday to ban Belarusian airlines from using the airspace and airports of the 27-nation bloc, imposed sanctions on officials linked to Sunday's flight diversion, and urged the International Civil Aviation Organization to start an investigation into the episode.
They also demanded the immediate release of the journalist, Raman Pratasevich, a top foe of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko.
Pratasevich was detained on Sunday after Belarusian flight controllers told the crew of a Ryanair jetliner he was aboard, that there was a bomb threat against the flight and ordered it to land. A Belarusian MiG-29 fighter jet was ordered to escort the plane.
Belarus Transport Ministry said on Tuesday that it has invited representatives of the international aviation organization and US and EU authorities to investigate the flight's diversion. Its air force chief said the plane's captain had decided to land in Belarus "without outside interference" and that the pilot could have chosen to go to Ukraine or Poland.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Minsk was taking an "absolutely reasonable approach" while ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova mocked the Western indignation.
Polish carrier LOT and Baltic airlines have begun bypassing Belarus. Air France, KLM, Finnair, Lufthansa and Austrian Airlines have all said they will also avoid flights over the country. The UK, which is no longer part of the EU, also recommended that carriers don't fly over Belarus, and British Airways flights were avoiding the country.
Pratasevich, a 26-year-old journalist and activist, was arrested along with his Russian girlfriend, Sofia Sapega. He was later seen in a brief video clip shown on Belarusian state television, saying that he was giving testimony about organizing mass disturbances.