Belarus: Airlines avoid airspace; fears over ‘forced’ confession

Pressure mounts on Minsk as more carriers suspend flights while journalist’s father says Protasevich has likely been beaten.

Belarusian blogger Roman Protasevich
Belarusian blogger Roman Protasevich, detained when a Ryanair plane was forced to land in Minsk, is seen in a pre-trial detention facility, as he says, in Minsk on May 24 in this still image taken from video [Telegram@Zheltyeslivy/Reuters]

More air carriers have suspended flights over Belarusian airspace in response to Minsk’s forced plane diversion, as fears grew for the journalist on board who was arrested after landing in the capital.

Air France, Finnair and Singapore Airlines became the latest carriers to suspend flights over Belarus on Tuesday, following moves taken by several other companies.

The announcements came a day after European Union leaders urged EU-based airlines to avoid Belarusian airspace and banned the country’s airlines from the 27-nation bloc.

EU leaders also indicated they were preparing to pile further economic sanctions on Minsk and urged the International Civil Aviation Organization to start an investigation into Sunday’s incident.

Air France said in a statement it had “taken note” of the conclusions of Monday’s EU summit and had suspended flights over Belarus “until further notice”.

Planes already in the air will have their flight plans modified, the French company said.

Singapore Airlines was also rerouting Europe-bound flights to avoid the Belarusian airspace and would continue to monitor the situation.

“The safety of our customers and crew is our top priority,” a spokesperson told the AFP news agency.

‘State-sponsored terror’

Minsk on Sunday forced a Ryanair flight from Athens, Greece, to Vilnius, Lithuania, to divert to the Belarusian capital in response to an alleged bomb threat.

On its landing, Belarusian authorities took Roman Protasevich, a 26-year-old reporter and critic of longtime President Alexander Lukashenko, into custody.

Protasevich left Belarus in 2019 and had been living in exile in Lithuania.

The incident led to international outrage, with European leaders labelling Minsk’s move a “state-sponsored terror act” and a “hijacking”.

The United States and NATO also condemned Belarus’ actions.

But Russia, which has provided security, diplomatic and financial backing to Lukashenko, accused the West of hypocrisy over its response to the incident.

On Tuesday, the Kremlin said it “regrets” Europe’s plans to avoid Belarusian airspace, as Belarusia said it invites international aviation groups to look into the plane diversion.

‘Forced’ confession

In a video posted online on Monday by Belarusian authorities, Protasevich said he was in good health and being held in a pretrial detention facility in Minsk.

He acknowledged having played a role in last year’s anti-government rallies in the capital, which followed a disputed August election that handed Lukashenko a sixth term.

But his father believes the confession was forced and that he has already been beaten.

In an interview with Reuters from Poland via Skype, Dzmitry Protasevich said: “I think he was forced. It’s not his words. It’s not his intonation of speech. He is acting very reserved. You can see he is nervous.

“It is very likely that his nose is broken because the shape of it is changed.”

The number of people who have been arrested since the rallies began is understood to be in the tens of thousands.

Belarus opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanovskaya, who is in exile in Lithuania after fleeing the country last year, has said there was no doubt Protasevich has been tortured as she called for tougher sanctions against Belarus.

The EU and the US imposed several rounds of financial sanctions against Minsk last year over its forceful response to the anti-government demonstrations.

However, the measures seemingly had no effect on the behaviour of Lukashenko, who has continued cracking down on dissent in the former Soviet state.

Since the vote, authorities have rounded up more of his opponents, with all major opposition figures now in jail or exile, and moved to shutter independent media outlets.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies