Air France among airlines to suspend flights over Belarus after plane ‘hijacking’

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko. File

"I applaud the courage and determination of Belarusians fighting for basic rights, including journalists like Raman Pratasevich and opposition leaders like Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya and her husband, Syarhey Tsikhanouski", Biden said in a statement.

The EU leaders also directed officials to draw up unspecified new sanctions against Belarus, and to work out a way to ban Belarusian airlines from the bloc's skies.

European Union leaders took a first step on Monday, agreeing at a summit to ban Belarusian airlines from the bloc and calling on EU-based carriers not to fly over its airspace.

Belarus has a reputation for using intimidation and coercion to force confessions from political prisoners, as a 2018 report from the USA secretary of state on human rights abuses in the Eastern European nation noted. "Belarus is facing an acute human rights crisis. amid unprecedented political repressions".

Singapore Airlines was also rerouting flights "that are bound for Europe to avoid the Belarusian airspace" and would continue to "closely monitor the situation", a spokesperson said. A Belarusian Mig-29 fighter jet was also dispatched to escort the flight.

European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen said the incident was a "hijacking". "But we don't know - it is just the proximity of the relationship between Minsk and Moscow". "This is going to hit them and everything is targeted towards making them feel the sting".

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the video was "concerning".

"The lives of more than 170 passengers were endangered here to arrest a journalist". This was a clear attack on democracy and on the freedom of the press.

Lukashenko has faced months of public protests triggered by his reelection to a sixth term in an August 2020 election the opposition rejected as rigged.

The 66-year-old leader has ruled Belarus with an iron fist for over two decades and responded to the demonstrations with a violent crackdown, detaining thousands, many of whom reported torture and abuse in custody.

Some say more sanctions will do little to alleviate the situation and will only push Belarus even closer to its main sponsor and ally, Russia, and reduce the influence of the European Union and others.

"Lukashenko will become an increasingly easy prey for the Kremlin", said Alexander Klaskouski, an independent Minsk-based political analyst. He added that he was giving evidence to investigators about organizing mass disturbances.

"The situation with the hijacking of the plane can not be considered separately from other repressions and flagrant violations of human rights in Belarus", she said.

Protasevich had been charged in absentia with staging mass riots and fanning social hatred.

Colville, the United Nations human rights official, said Protasevich's appearance on Belarus state TV "was not reassuring, given the apparent bruising to his face, and the strong likelihood that his appearance was not voluntary and his "confession" to serious crimes was forced".

Mr Protasevich, 26, who is based in Lithuania, appeared on a video on Monday admitting he had played a role in organising anti-government protests in Minsk a year ago.

Protasevich's parents are in close contact with the mother of his girlfriend, Sofia Sapega, a law student who was arrested along with him. In it, she said she had been working as the editor of a Telegram channel that revealed personal data about Belarus' security officers amid the protests.

"The lawyer tried to see him today but she was turned down, she could not see him". Russian Federation has also accused Western countries of hypocrisy, noting a Bolivian presidential plane was diverted to Austria in 2013 after reports it carried USA intelligence leaker Edward Snowden. But Max Blain, a spokesman for the British prime minister, said "the invite list for G-7 is already set" and wasn't aware of any request from Macron to invite the opposition.

In the event of a bomb threat aboard, pilots would adhere to instructions on where to land and assume that the intercepting aircraft was there to help. State media said the intervention was ordered personally by Lukashenko.



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