Government asks airlines to avoid flights over Belarus after journalist's arrest

24 May 2021, 15:41 | Updated: 24 May 2021, 19:50

Nick Hardinges

By Nick Hardinges

The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) has been ordered to tell airlines to halt journeys over Belarus amid an ongoing dispute about the diversion of a Ryanair passenger flight, Grant Shapps has announced.

The Transport Secretary announced on Twitter that he instructed the CAA to request airlines avoid Belarusian airspace and has suspended the operating permit of the country's state-owned airline Belavia.

He said: "Following the forced diversion of a @Ryanair aircraft to Minsk yesterday, I’ve instructed @UK_CAA to request airlines avoid Belarusian airspace in order to keep passengers safe.

"I have also suspended Belavia’s operating permit."

Meanwhile, speaking in the Commons at around the same time on Monday, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab called for the "immediate release" of Mr Protasevich, an activist and blogger who was arrested following the diversion of the flight.

He condemned the events as a "shocking assault on civil aviation and an assault on international law".

Read more: UK threatens sanctions as Belarus accused of 'state-sponsored hijacking'

Read more: Who is Roman Protasevich, activist arrested in Belarus?

Mr Raab told MPs: "We understand that Mr Protasevich was detained on conspiracy charges including involvement in riots, organisation of action which violate public order and incitement of hatred and discord.

"The UK calls for his immediate release and release of all other political prisoners in Belarus.

"We are urgently seeking full details of precisely what took place in relation to Flight FR4978 but the scenario as reported is a shocking assault on civil aviation and an assault on international law."

He added: "It represents a danger to civilian flights everywhere and it is an egregious and extraordinary departure from the international law and the international practice that guides international civil aviation under the Chicago Convention."

Read more: UK condemns Belarus after flight diverted 'so blogger could be arrested'

Read more: Dominic Raab calls for new 'free and fair' election in Belarus

Grant Shapps has asked for passenger planes not to fly over Belarus
Grant Shapps has asked for passenger planes not to fly over Belarus. Picture: PA
Roman Protasevich was arrested after a commercial Ryanair flight was grounded at Minsk
Roman Protasevich was arrested after a commercial Ryanair flight was grounded at Minsk. Picture: PA

The foreign secretary demanded the regime in Minsk, the capital of Belarus, to explain the "serious violation of international law".

He continued: "(Belarusian leader Alexander) Mr Lukashenko's regime must be held to account for such reckless and dangerous behaviour."

Mr Raab added: "For our part, we've summoned the Belarusian ambassador, and the minister for the European neighbourhood is conveying our condemnation of these acts as we speak.

"We are working with our international partners to explore every potential diplomatic option at ICAO, at the UN Security Council, at the OSCE and at the G7."

He then said: "Beyond the diplomatic track we're actively considering and co-ordinating with our allies on further sanctions on those responsible for this outlandish conduct."

Irish foreign affairs minister Simon Coveney echoed comments made by Ryanair boss Michael O'Leary, who described what happened as a "state-sponsored hijacking" and claimed agents from Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB) were on board the flight.

Labour MP Chris Bryant (Rhondda) said there was "no doubt that Belarus is now a rogue state", adding that he feared the UK was "throwing another snowball in a river" when slapping down controversial actions by other countries without harsh sanctions.

Mr Raab replied: "I wasn't sure the action that we could take that he thought we should take, but I'm open to all suggestions in a spirit of openness, and we need to marshal all of our resources."

A CAA spokesperson said: “Following the UK Government’s decision, the UK Civil Aviation Authority has suspended all foreign carrier permits held by Belarusian air carriers until further notice.

"This suspension applies to both scheduled operators, including the Belarusian airline Belavia, as well as chartered air carriers.

“The Civil Aviation Authority has also issued a notice to all UK registered airlines requesting that they avoid overflight of any territory of the Republic of Belarus”.