UK Transport Secretary orders temporary flight ban in Belarusian airspace following Ryanair flight diversion

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps has instructed the Civil Aviation Authority to request airlines avoid Belarusian airspace in order to keep passengers safe and has suspended Belarus’ national airline Belavia’s operating permit.

The move comes following the “state-sponsored hijack” of a Ryanair flight to enable the arrest of a prominent critic of Alexander Lukashenko’s regime – Roman Protasevich

Mr Protasevich, 26, was on board the flight from Athens to Lithuanian capital Vilnius when it was forced to change course to head for Minsk after a bomb scare, escorted by a MiG fighter jet.

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Protasevich and his girlfriend were reportedly led off the plane and taken away by police after it landed in Minsk.

The plane spent seven hours on the ground in the Belarusian capital while security checks were carried out by local authorities, during which “nothing untoward was found”, the airline reportedly said.

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Belarus state media said Mr Lukashenko personally ordered a MiG-29 fighter jet to escort the flight he was on to Minsk.

Ryanair boss Michael O’Leary said it was a “state-sponsored hijacking” and claimed agents from Russia’s KGB were also on board the flight.

Belarus state media said Mr Lukashenko personally ordered a MiG-29 fighter jet to escort the Ryanair flight he was on to Minsk.

“I think it’s very frightening for the crew, for the passengers who were held under armed guard, had their bags searched,” he told Newstalk.

“It was clear it appears that the intent of the Russian authorities was to remove a journalist and his traveling companion.

“We believe there was also some KGB agents offloaded from the aircraft as well.”

Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said further sanctions were being considered against the Lukashenko administration and Belarus’ ambassador in London had been summoned for a dressing down.

"Freedom for Raman Pratasevich" (Roman Protashevich) is written on a protest wagon in front of the Embassy of Belarus in Berlin, Germany, Monday picture: Christoph Soeder/dpa via AP.

Mr Raab said: “The UK condemns yesterday’s actions by the Belarusian authorities, who arrested journalist Roman Protasevich on the basis of a ruse, having forced his flight to land in Minsk.

“Mr Lukashenko must be held to account for his outlandish actions.

“The UK calls for the immediate release of Mr Protasevich and other political prisoners held in Belarus.

“The UK is working with our allies on a coordinated response, including further sanctions.”

He said the International Civil Aviation Organisation’s council should hold an urgent meeting to consider the regime’s flouting of the rules.

Leaders from the European Union will hold emergency talks to discuss the situation.

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