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Kamis, 27 Mei 2021

Russia blocks diversions for Europe flights amid standoff over arrest of Belarusian journalist Roman Protasevich - ABC News

Airlines have revealed Russia has blocked some European flights avoiding Belarus airspace, in a standoff over the arrest of Belarusian journalist Roman Protasevich.

Belarus's strongman President Alexander Lukashenko sparked international outrage by dispatching a fighter jet Sunday to intercept a Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius carrying Protasevich, 26, and his girlfriend Sofia Sapega, 23.

As his parents pleaded for international help to get him released, the G7 global powers demanded Minsk free Protasevich, and the EU's foreign policy chief threatened hard-hitting economic sanctions.

The UN civil aviation agency, meanwhile, said it would launch an investigation into the May 23 diversion by Belarus.

In response to the arrest, EU countries are banning Belarusian carriers, and the EU has also urged airlines to avoid Belarus's airspace.

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EU sanctions Belarus over the arrest of a dissident journalist.

Austrian Airlines said it had cancelled a Vienna-Moscow flight after Russian authorities did not approve a route change for it to avoid Belarusian airspace.

An Air France flight from Paris to Moscow on Wednesday had to be cancelled for the same reason.

Calls for 'immediate and unconditional release'

A nervous-looking Protasevich was last seen in a video released by Belarusian authorities in which he was seen supposedly admitting to helping to organise mass unrest, a charge that could land him in jail for 15 years.

"I want you to relay our appeal everywhere, throughout the world, to government representatives, to EU countries, to EU leaders, to US leaders: I am appealing, I am begging, help me free my son," his mother Natalia told journalists in Warsaw, visibly moved.

Roman's father, Dmitry, said his son was "a tough man" and "a hero".

The family and their lawyer confirmed that they have not had any communication with their son since his arrest.

A woman and a man stand with concerned expressions on their faces
Natalia, left, and Dzmitry Pratasevich, have appealed for the release of their son.(

AP: Czarek Sokolowski

)

Foreign ministers of the Group of Seven wealthy nations demanded the "immediate and unconditional release" of Protasevich, "as well as all other journalists and political prisoners held in Belarus", in a joint statement published by the British government.

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The European Union's foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, said proposals were "on the table" to target key sectors of the Belarusian economy. 

Mr Borrell mooted targeting the potash fertiliser sector or refusing gas being delivered to the bloc via Belarus over the "hijacking" of the plane by the regime.

The bloc was also looking at "targeted sanctions" against the Belarusian authorities to add to the 88 regime figures and seven companies already on a blacklist over a brutal crackdown on the opposition after last year's disputed presidential election.

At a briefing in Vilnius, where she fled to after last year's election, exiled Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya on Thursday called for an "economic boycott of the regime".

Christophe Deloire, the head of media rights watchdog Reporters Sans Frontieres (Reporters Without Borders) was also in Lithuania to file a legal complaint against Mr Lukashenko with prosecutors investigating Sunday's incident.

Later on Thursday he protested on the Belarusian border along with dozens of Belarusian and Lithuanian journalists.

Protesters wave flags.
Roman Protasevich's supporters have held rallies across Europe.(

Reuters: Valentyn Ogirenko

)

UN civil aviation agency to investigate

The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) Council "decided to undertake a fact-finding investigation of this event," the statement said.

It added that, at a meeting, the body "underlined the importance of establishing the facts of what happened, and of understanding whether there had been any breach by any ICAO Member State of international aviation law."

The council "requested the ICAO Secretariat to prepare an interim report to the Council for a subsequent meeting of the current session."

Russian President Vladimir Putin sits at a desk
The Belarusian regime continues to enjoy solid support from Russian President Vladimir Putin.(

AP: Sergei Ilyin via Sputnik

)

The ICAO, of which Belarus is a member, has no power to order sanctions. But European leaders this week agreed to cut air links with Belarus and told airlines to avoid the country's airspace.

Its meeting Thursday came after Western powers on the UN Security Council called on it to investigate, echoing an earlier call from NATO.

But Russia's support for Minsk means the UN Security Council is unlikely to agree on a collective statement.

A defiant Mr Lukashenko said he had "acted lawfully to protect our people" from an alleged bomb threat on the plane, in an address to parliament on Wednesday.

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko stands in parliament
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko is already under Western sanctions.(

AP: Sergei Shelega via BelTA

)

The criticism was nothing more than another attempt by his opponents to undermine his rule, he added.

Mr Lukashenko — often dubbed "Europe's last dictator" — is facing some of the strongest international pressure of his nearly 27 years ruling ex-Soviet Belarus. 

He and his allies are already under a series of Western sanctions over a brutal crackdown on mass protests that followed his disputed re-election to a sixth term last August.

But he continues to enjoy solid support from Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is hosting the Belarusian leader on Friday.

AFP

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2021-05-27 23:52:11Z
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