EU bans Belarus airlines from its airspace after journalist's arrest

Belarus's military forced a Ryanair plane to land in Minsk on May 23

TOPSHOT - A Belarusian dog handler checks luggages off a Ryanair Boeing 737-8AS (flight number FR4978) parked on Minsk International Airport's apron in Minsk, on May 23, 2021. Belarusian opposition Telegram channel Nexta said Sunday its former editor and exiled opposition activist Roman Protasevich had been detained at Minsk airport after his Lithuania-bound flight made an emergency landing. Protasevich was travelling aboard a Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius, which made an emergency landing following a bomb scare, TASS news agency reported citing the press service of Minsk airport. "The plane was checked, no bomb was found and all passengers were sent for another security search," Nexta said. "Among them was... Nexta journalist Roman Protasevich. He was detained." - RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT "AFP PHOTO / ONLINER.BY " - NO MARKETING - NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS
 / AFP / ONLINER.BY / - / RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT "AFP PHOTO / ONLINER.BY " - NO MARKETING - NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS

EU ambassadors agreed to ban Belarus airlines from flying over the bloc's territory or landing at its airports.

It is the latest step taken by Brussels in response to the arrest of an opposition journalist whose plane last month was forced into an emergency landing by Belarus's military.

The flight ban will take effect at midnight, diplomats involved in the talks told Reuters.

Enforcement of the ban will fall to EU governments, many of whom are also members of Nato and can scramble fighter jets to protect their airspace.

Belarus's national carrier, Belavia, usually operates flights linking the country with airports including those in Paris, Berlin, Rome and Vienna.

The EU is also recommending that its airlines avoid flying over Belarus, but this does not amount to a legally binding ban.

Air traffic control agency Eurocontrol said that about 400 civilian planes usually fly over Belarus every day.

Lufthansa, Air France and Finnair are among the airlines who have announced that they will stop flying over the country.

Opposition blogger and activist Roman Protasevich, who is accused of participating in an unsanctioned protest at the Kuropaty preserve, arrives for a court hearing in Minsk, Belarus April 10, 2017. Picture taken April 10, 2017. REUTERS/Stringer

The EU’s move is part of broader sanctions against the regime of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko.

Britain, the US and EU all imposed sanctions on Belarus officials last year after an election that the opposition said was rigged.

On May 23, journalist Roman Protasevich was arrested after the Belarusian military scrambled a warplane to force a Ryanair plane to land in Minsk.

The flight from Athens to Vilnius was diverted when Belarus claimed there was a bomb threat, which world powers suspect was a ruse to arrest the journalist.

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the main opposition figure in Belarus, on Friday called for the EU, the UK and the US to jointly put more pressure on Mr Lukashenko.

“Pressure is more powerful when these countries are acting jointly,” she said. “They have to act jointly so their voice will be more loud.”

The opposition leader said she expected that Belarus would be discussed at next week’s G7 summit in Cornwall.

Belarusian state media broadcast an interview with Mr Protasevich on Thursday in which he admitted calling for protests and praised Mr Lukashenko.

Ms Tsikhanouskaya on Friday dismissed the interview, saying Mr Protasevich was a political prisoner.

"All such videos are shot under pressure. We don't have to pay attention even to these words because they are done after torture," she said.

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