Many European airlines quit flying over Belarus after a journalist was arrested

Many European airlines quit flying over Belarus after a journalist was arrested


Air France is the latest major carrier to ban overflights. Neighbouring Ukraine and Poland are stopping all flights to and from Belarus.

Western countries accuse Belarus of hijacking the Ryanair plane carrying journalist Roman Protasevich on Sunday.

The Greece-Lithuania flight was rerouted over a supposed bomb threat.

Belarus authorities on Monday released video of Mr Protasevich that appears to have been recorded under duress.

He faces charges related to his reporting of last August's disputed election and subsequent crackdown on mass opposition protests, and has said he fears the death penalty after being placed on a terrorism list.

Belarus is the only European country that still executes prisoners.

On Tuesday, the Belarusian transport ministry released a transcript of a conversation between an air traffic controller in Minsk and a pilot on Sunday's Ryanair flight.

According to the transcript, which has not been independently verified, Belarus suggested several times that the plane should land in Minsk on "our recommendation".

This appeared to contradict earlier statements from the Belarusian authorities that said the decision to land was made independently by the pilot.

What's Happening In The Air?

At the Brussels summit, EU leaders told the bloc's airlines not to fly over Belarus.

They have also asked member states to suspend operating permits for its national carrier Belavia.

Air France said it had "suspended overflights of Belarusian airspace until further notice". Finnish airline Finnair also announced a ban.

Air France's Dutch subsidiary KLM, along with German carrier Lufthansa, Scandinavia's SAS and others, announced similar suspensions on Monday.

Singapore Airlines also said it was rerouting flights to avoid Belarus.

Meanwhile Polish national airline Lot said it had suspended both overflights and flights to and from Minsk, and Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said Ukrainian carriers were banned from flying over or into Belarus.

Belavia said it was suspending flights to the UK and France until 30 October.

Belarus, though not in the EU, borders three EU countries. Many flights to and from Asia as well as within Europe use its airspace.

Earlier on Tuesday, European Council President Charles Michel shared a map of air traffic taken from the flight tracking website Flightradar24 in which there appeared to be no planes in Belarusian airspace. Some flights, however, have continued throughout the day.

Some 400 flights use Belarusian airspace daily and 100 of these are by EU or UK carriers, according to the European air traffic agency, Eurocontrol. It has urged the airlines concerned to re-route through nearby countries.

A Strong Message, But How Effective?

"Frightening Lukashenko with sanctions is doomed to failure," declared one Russian newspaper this morning. "It only eggs him on."

Then the character analysis: "He's cultivated the image of a thuggish hooligan."

It begs the question - can sanctions change a "hooligan's" behaviour? Previous attempts have failed. European leaders clearly felt that after the fake bomb scare, the diversion of Ryanair Flight 4978 to Minsk and the arrest of a political opponent on board, they needed to send a strong message that such a brazen act was unacceptable. Hence the new sanctions. It's unclear, though, how effective they will be.

Banning Belarusian airlines from flying over EU territory and calling on EU-based carriers to avoid Belarusian airspace is a financial blow to Minsk.

But Mr Lukashenko will almost certainly use this as an excuse to say to those around him - and to the Belarusian people - "Look, I told you so. The West is out to destroy Belarus, if not with bullets, then with sanctions." He will use it to batten down the hatches even more tightly in the face of an alleged external enemy.

Might there come a point when those around the leader pause to consider where Belarus is heading - its isolation, the economic consequences of Mr Lukashenko's policies, not to mention the brutality of the crackdown on his opponents?

As long as Moscow is backing him, Mr Lukashenko will feel confident of riding things out.