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Alexander Lukashenko; Minister for Transport Eamon Ryan. Photojoiner/PA Images
Eamon Ryan

Independent 'fact-finding' probe launched into Belarus diverting Ryanair flight

Transport Minister Eamon Ryan, Lithuania and Poland had called for the ICAO to investigate the incident.

RUSSIAN PRESIDENT VLADIMIR Putin and Belarus strongman Alexander Lukashenko will meet today, after the UN civil aviation agency announced it will investigate the diversion of a passenger plane and the arrest of a journalist on board in a growing diplomatic row.

The meeting in Sochi between the Kremlin and the Belarusian leader, who enjoys strong support from Moscow, comes as airlines revealed Russia has blocked some European flights for avoiding Belarus airspace.

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

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

It added 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”.

‘The first time this has happened’

Minister for Transport Eamon Ryan had called for such an investigation previously.

Yesterday, along with Lithuania and Poland, Minister Ryan attended a meeting where they called for the ICAO to investigate.

There was a very lengthy debase, and at the end, the Council agreed that they would do that. I expect their interim report to be available at the end of June, and its critical, because you can’t let this go without consequences.

Under Article 55(e) of the Chicago convention, the ICAO has the power to carry out the independent investigation, looking at the recordings and the sequence of timings of the air-traffic warnings, “to determine the true facts of it”.

“It was disputed by Belarus and Russia and their presentations yesterday, and I think the fact that the ICAO is now investigating will give us the opportunity to show exactly what happened.”

Belarus has repeatedly claimed that there was a legitimate bomb threat on board the flight.

Ryan said that the release of Protasevich and his girlfriend are the first things that need to happen to de-escalate this issue, but that there will be other consequences.

It was the first time, and this is why it’s so significant, that an aircraft was diverted in this way – the first time involving a European aircraft. And that’s why Europe has taken such a strong line against it.

“There was coercion to bring the plane to ground, and that’s a huge worrying escalation… because if you [do] not feel safe in terms of that the plane is going to be diverted and effectively overtaken in that way, that will undermine fundamentally the whole confidence in security of flying.”

Parents’ plea for son’s release

Lukashenko sparked international outrage by dispatching a fighter jet Sunday to intercept a Ryanair flight from Athens to the Lithuanian capital Vilnius carrying Protasevich, aged 26, and his girlfriend Sofia Sapega, aged 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 15 years in jail.

“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.

His father Dmitry said his son was “a tough man” and “a hero”, adding: “Throughout his life he fought for the truth and passed it on to people, which is why Lukashenko committed this despicable act.”

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

Diplomatic work underway

Foreign ministers of the Group of Seven wealthy nations have 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.

The European Union’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said proposals were “on the table” to target key sectors of the Belarusian economy.

He 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.

Borrell 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”.

With reporting from AFP.

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