Government bans all Belarusian airlines from entering UK airspace

An air passenger who sat near Belarusian journalist Roman Protasevich speaks about what happened, ITV News Correspondent Lucy Watson reports

Belarusian airlines will be banned from entering UK airspace, the transport secretary has announced, escalating Britain's reaction to the forced diversion of a passenger jet to arrest an opposition journalist.

Grant Shapps said: "Following yesterday's removal of permission for Belavia to operate to and from the UK, I'm now taking further action. With immediate effect, Belarusian airlines will be prevented from entering UK airspace unless specifically authorised."The latest move comes as the rest of the western world responds with outrage to the forced landing of the Ryanair plane flying from Greece to Lithuania on Sunday.

The European Union agreed on Tuesday to impose sanctions against Belarus, including banning its airlines from using the air space and airports of the 27-nation bloc.

Several European national airlines including Air France have also said they will now avoid flying over Belarus.

The EU called the forced grounding of the plane a "hijacking" and demanded the immediate release of the journalist, Roman Protasevich, a key critic of authoritarian Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko.

A brief video clip of Mr Protasevich, who ran a popular messaging app that played a key role in helping organise massive protests against Mr Lukashenko, was shown on Belarusian state television on Monday night, a day after he was removed from the Ryanair flight.

He appears to be under duress and has a bruise on his forehead.

Sitting at a table with his hands folded in front of him and speaking rapidly, he said he was in satisfactory health and said his treatment in custody was “maximally correct and according to law”.

He added that he was giving evidence to investigators about organising mass disturbances.

In a video released by Belarusian authorities, journalist and activist Roman Protasevich said he was in good health.

In unusually swift action in Brussels, the EU leaders also urged all EU-based carriers to avoid flying over Belarus, decided to impose sanctions on officials linked to Sunday’s flight diversion, and urged the International Civil Aviation Organisation to start an investigation into what they see as an unprecedented move and what some said amounted to state terrorism or piracy.

The leaders called on their council “to adopt the necessary measures to ban overflight of EU air space by Belarusian airlines and prevent access to EU airports of flights operated by such airlines”.

As well as Mr Protasevich, they also urged authorities in Minsk to release his Russian girlfriend, Sofia Sapega, who was taken off the plane with him.

The text was endorsed quickly by leaders determined to demonstrate a “strong reaction” to the incident because of the “serious endangering of aviation safety and passengers on board by Belarussian authorities”, according to an EU official.

Ryanair said Belarusian flight controllers told the crew there was a bomb threat against the plane as it was crossing Belarus air space on Sunday and ordered it to land.

A Belarusian MiG-29 fighter jet was scrambled to escort the plane in a brazen show of force by Mr Lukashenko, who has ruled the country with an iron fist for over a quarter of a century.

President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko has been warned there will be ‘consequences’ following the arrest of journalist Roman Protasevich Credit: Sergei Sheleg/BelTA Pool Photo via AP

Belarus authorities then arrested the 26-year-old activist, journalist and prominent Lukashenko critic. Mr Protasevich and his Russian girlfriend were taken off the plane shortly after it landed, and authorities have not said where they’re being held.

Ryanair Flight FR4978, which took off from Athens, Greece, was eventually allowed to continue on to Vilnius, Lithuania.

EU leaders were particularly forceful in their condemnation of the arrest and the move against the plane, which was flying between two of the bloc’s member nations and was being operated by an airline based in Ireland, also a member.

The bloc summoned Belarus’s ambassador “to condemn the inadmissible step of the Belarusian authorities” and said the arrest was yet again “another blatant attempt to silence all opposition voices in the country”.

Czech prime minister Andrej Babis said “the scandalous incident in Belarus shows signs of state terrorism and it’s unbelievable”, while European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen said it amounted to a “hijacking”.

“This is an attack on democracy,” Mrs von der Leyen said. “This is an attack on freedom of expression. And this is an attack on European sovereignty. And this outrageous behaviour needs a strong answer.”

Mrs Von der Leyen added that a 3 billion euro (£2.59 billion) EU investment and economic package for Belarus would remain on hold until Belarus “turns democratic”.

US president Joe Biden said late on Monday that he had asked his team to develop appropriate options to hold accountable those responsible, in close coordination with the EU, other allies and partners, and international organisations.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has labelled the flight diversion ‘an attack on democracy’. Credit: AP

“This outrageous incident and the video Mr Pratasevich appears to have made under duress are shameful assaults on both political dissent and the freedom of the press,” Mr Biden said in a statement.

“The United States joins countries around the world in calling for his release, as well as for the release of the hundreds of political prisoners who are being unjustly detained by the Lukashenka regime.”