Europe airspace row escalates as Russia blocks flights avoiding Belarus

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Alexander Lukashenko insisted that Minsk air traffic control had to ask the flight to land after they received a bomb threat - AFP

Alexander Lukashenko insisted that Minsk air traffic control had to ask the flight to land after they received a bomb threat – AFP

Russia on Thursday raised the spectre of a global air row by barring two European airlines from entering its airspace in an apparent retaliation for the EU’s decision to bypass Belarusian airspace in protest against Sunday’s forced landing of a Ryanair plane.

Belarus shocked the international community on Sunday after it scrambled a fighter jet and forced the Athens-Vilnius flight to land in Minsk in what was widely seen as a special operation to arrest Roman Protasevich, an exiled Belarusian journalist and his companion who were on board.

Russia, the key ally of Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko, on Thursday appeared to throw its weight behind Minsk in retaliation against Europe’s recent decision to close its airspace to Belarusian flights.

Austrian Airlines on Thursday became the second European airline carrier to have said that Russia did not approve its new flight path bypassing Belarus, forcing the company to scrap its Vienna-Moscow flight altogether.

AirFrance on Wednesday had to cancel its scheduled flight from Paris to Moscow after Russia similarly refused to give it the green light to enter Russian airspace on a new path.

It came as the Greek prime minister said there was no evidence that Belarusian KGB or any other secret service agents were on board the Athens-to-Vilnius flight.

“We have no indication there were KGB agents or any security service agents on board the plane. None. Zero. And we investigated it very carefully,” Kyriakos Mitsotakis said in an interview with Germany’s Bild tabloid.

Meanwhile, an investigative media outlet revealed on Thursday that the Ryanair flight that was forced to land in Minsk was told of a bomb threat half an hour before Belarusian air traffic control received the message about it.

The revelation shatters the main argument of Belarusian authorities who presented the email as a key piece of evidence, proving that they had no intention to force the flight to land and arrest a dissident journalist on board.

Mr Lukashenko, the Belarusian leader who has ruled the country for 26 years and managed to stay in power despite massive nationwide protests last year, in a speech on Wednesday insisted that Minsk air traffic control had to ask the flight to land after they received a bomb threat “from Switzerland.”

Dossier, an investigative unit funded by exiled Russian tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, on Thursday released a screenshot of the purported email, casting doubt on the official version of the incident.

The email appears to have been sent at 12:57 am, or 27 minutes after Minsk air traffic control told the flight about the bomb threat.

The text of the email, which was purportedly sent on behalf of Hamas, appears to be identical to the one read out at a news conference by Belarusian officials earlier this week.

The Palestinian group has insisted that it “has nothing to do with that completely.”

The new revelation casts further doubt on frantic attempts by Belarusian authorities to portray the hijacking as a mere accident.

Debunking another claim by Mr Lukashenko, Warsaw airport officials on Wednesday denied that the Ryanair flight requested a landing at the Warsaw Chopin airport and was refused.

The incident that several European leader described as state terrorism has renewed appetite for Western sanctions.

Several European nations have closed their airspace to Belarusian flights, and EU leaders are expected to discuss further sanctions against the Lukashenko regime later on Thursday.

Group 7 nations on Thursday issued a statement condemning the incident and the arrest of Mr Protasevich and his companion “in the strongest possible terms.”

“This action jeopardised the safety of the passengers and crew of the flight,” the statement said

G7’s foreign ministers called for the immediate release of Mr Protasevich and his partner and pledged to “enhance our efforts, including through further sanctions as appropriate, to promote accountability for the actions of the Belarusian authorities.”

Belavia, the national airline carrier, on Thursday morning canceled flights to eight European countries at least until the end of October as the number of its available destinations continues to shrink.

Local media reported long lines at Belavia’s ticket officers as customers were coming in to return their tickets.