UN to investigate Belarus plane diversion, as Russia stands by Lukashenko

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The UN civil aviation agency announced Thursday it will investigate Belarus’s diversion of a Ryanair plane and the arrest of a journalist on board, as airlines revealed Russia has blocked some European flights in a growing diplomatic row.

The G7 global powers also demanded Minsk release the journalist, Roman Protasevich, and the EU’s foreign policy chief threatened hard-hitting economic sanctions.

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The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) Council, based in Montreal, “decided to undertake a fact-finding investigation of this event,” it said in a statement.

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.”

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Belarus’s strongman President Alexander Lukashenko, who enjoys strong support from Moscow, 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.

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

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“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 on Thursday said his son was “a tough man” and “a hero”.

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“Throughout his life he fought for the truth and passed it on to people, which is why Lukashenko committed this despicable act,” he said.

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

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‘Immediate and unconditional release’

Foreign ministers of the Group of Seven wealthy nations on Thursday 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 Thursday that proposals were “on the table” to target key sectors of the Belarusian economy.

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.

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He was echoed by German Foreign Minister Heiko Mass, who also raised the possibility of hitting key firms in the fertiliser sector and said the EU could curb the Belarusian government’s ability to issue bonds in Europe.

But he played down the likelihood of the bloc agreeing quickly to reject gas transiting through pipelines in Belarus, insisting it was “more of a medium and long-term issue”.

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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”.

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

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

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Air links cut

The ICAO, of which Belarus is a member, has no power to order sanctions and Russia’s support for Minsk means the UN Security Council is unlikely to agree on a collective statement.

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However EU countries are banning Belarusian carriers and the EU has also urged airlines to avoid Belarusian airspace.

On Thursday, 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.

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

‘Europe’s last dictator’

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A defiant 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.

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

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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.

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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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