The European Union has announced it will sanction Belarus and call on its airlines to avoid it’s airspace, after a Ryanair flight from Greece to Lithuania was forced to land in the country on Sunday May 23, and a political activist/dissident journalist on board was arrested.
Ryanair (RYAAY) flight 4978 was ordered to divert to Minsk by Belarusian air traffic control on Sunday over a supposed security alert. The Ryanair flight was about to begin its descent to Vilnius in Lithuania when it suddenly changed direction, turning sharply east and descending towards the Belarusian capital.
One of the passengers on the aircraft was Belarusian journalist and opposition activist Roman Protasevich, who was arrested as soon as the plane landed, according to the Belarus Interior Ministry.
Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary on Monday accused Belarus of “state-sponsored hijacking, state-sponsored piracy.”
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said the bloc is “closing our airspace to planes from Belarus” and calling on EU airlines not to fly over the country.
She added that “further economic sanctions will be presented soon.”
“This is an attack on freedom of expression and this is an attack on European sovereignty,” she said in a news conference.
“This outrageous behavior needs a strong answer, therefore the European Council decided that there will be additional sanctions on individuals that are involved in the hijacking but this time also on businesses and economic entities that are financing this [Belarusian] regime.”
The announcement comes after some international airlines announced on Monday, May 24 that they would avoid flying over Belarus following the incident.
Germany’s Lufthansa (DLAKY) said:. “Due to the current dynamic situation, we are suspending the operation in Belarusian airspace for the time being,” a company spokesperson told CNN Business.
Scandinavian Airlines (SAS) said in a statement on Monday that it will reroute its twice weekly flights between Oslo and Kiev, the capitals of Norway and Ukraine, in line with instructions from the Swedish Transport Agency.
“Safety is always our highest priority. We follow the development closely and are in close contact with Scandinavian and European aviation authorities and follow their instructions,” SAS added.
Earlier on Monday, Latvia’s carrier AirBaltic said it had “decided to avoid entering Belarus airspace until the situation becomes clearer or a decision is issued by the authorities.”
Cyprus’ Avia Solutions Group also said its airlines based in the Baltic region will not be using Belarusian airspace and Hungarian carrier Wizz Air (WZZAF) said it had rerouted a flight between Ukraine and Estonia on Monday, adding in a statement: “We are continuously monitoring and evaluating the situation.”
UK Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said on Twitter that he has instructed the UK Civil Aviation Authority to request airlines “avoid Belarusian airspace in order to keep passengers safe.”
He also added that he has also suspended Belarus’ flag carrier Belavia’s operating permit.
US Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said Monday that the US government was assessing whether American airlines were safe flying over Belarus airspace. “We, both in terms of the international bodies we’re part of and as an administration with the FAA [Federal Aviation Administration] are looking at that,”