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Russia hails 'reasonable' approach by Belarus to divert Lithuania-bound flight over reported bomb threat

Iran Press TV

Monday, 24 May 2021 4:59 PM

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has defended Belarusian authorities' decision to divert a Lithuania-bound passenger flight over the country's airspace following a reported bomb threat, saying Belarus had treated the incident with an "absolutely reasonable approach."

Lavrov made the remarks during a press conference on Monday, after Belarusian authorities detained a dissident figure on board the plane, drawing strong condemnations from US and European officials who accused Minsk of "hijacking" and interfering with the European Union's civil aviation.

"A representative of the Belarusian foreign ministry... stressed the readiness of the Belarusian authorities to act on the issue in a transparent manner and to follow all international rules," he said.

"I think this is an absolutely reasonable approach," Lavorv noted, calling on the international community to "soberly assess the situation."

The Ireland-based Ryanair plane flying from the Greek capital of Athens to Vilnius – carrying more than 120 passengers, including Belarusian opposition activist and blogger Roman Protasevich who is wanted in Belarus for suspected "terrorist activities" – was ordered to make an emergency landing in Minsk on Sunday following the bomb threat that later proved to be a hoax.

After the search of the aircraft and the reported detention of Protasevich and a companion, the plane departed the Minsk airport for Lithuania following a 7-hour stop.

Western leaders called the incident an "act of state terrorism," with the European Union expected to toughen sanctions against Belarus.

Earlier in the day, the Belarusian Foreign Ministry dismissed the "unfounded" accusations that Belarus deliberately diverted the plane, saying it acted legally following the bomb alert.

Protasevich is the founder of Telegram's "Nexta" channel -- the opposition-led news outlet that challenged last year's reelection of President Alexander Lukashenko and published images of protest events across Belarus against him.

The 26-year-old dissident is also wanted in Belarus on extremism charges and stands accused of organizing mass riots and of inciting social hatred.

Protasevich left Nexta last year. He faces a sentence of up to 15 years in Belarus.

Ryanair captain landed in Minsk 'without interference': Air force chief

Meanwhile, the commander of the Belarusian Air Force and Air-Defense Forces, Major General Igor Golub, has announced that the Ryanair captain independently made the decision to land in Minsk.

"The decision was made by the captain without outside interference," he said, adding that the aircraft could have also chosen to go to Ukraine or Poland.

The Minsk airport has already insisted that the decision to land in Belarus was made by the Ryanair pilot and in accordance with international guidelines.

EU considers shunning Belarusian airspace over forced landing

The EU is considering shunning Belarusian airspace and suspending the permits of Belavia, the flag carrier and national airline of the country, after the Ryanair passenger flight was forced to land in Minsk.

Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia have said the airspace of Belarus should be declared "unsafe," calling on the 27-nation bloc to close its airspace to Belarusian flights.

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki has also proposed that all flights between EU and Belarus be suspended until Protasevich is released.

Latvian airline airBaltic has become the first to announce it would no longer use Belarusian air space, while France and Ireland have said air traffic restrictions could be part of the EU's response.

"Together with international partners, we will work to close the airspace of Belarus to international flights," Lithuanian Prime Minister Ingrida Simonyte said.

The development comes as EU leaders are due to meet in Brussels later in the day to discuss what action to take. The European officials have already called for fresh sanctions against Belarus.

A Brussels diplomat has said the meeting might end up only sending "a political signal" to avoid Belarusian airspace.

This is while French European Affairs Minister Clement Beaune has called the plane's forced diversion "an act of state piracy that cannot be left unpunished," proposing tougher sanctions against Belarus. The office of French President Emmanuel Macron has said the EU might also suspend ground transit links with Belarus.

Beaune further said the EU summit will likely decide to tighten sanctions already in place against Minsk, suggesting an airspace ban would be "reasonable protective measure because Europeans' lives were put at risk."

The EU has blacklisted 88 individuals and seven companies accused of "repression and intimidation" of people protesting against Lukashenko's victory in a contested presidential election last year. Lukashenko denies election fraud.

The sanctions include a ban on travel to the EU and the freezing of any assets held in the bloc, including by Lukashenko and his son.

Chief of the EU's executive European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, has already demanded Protasevich's immediate release and an international investigation into the incident, insisting that those responsible for "the Ryanair hijacking must be sanctioned."

Any EU sanctions require unanimity and usually take weeks, or longer, to prepare and negotiate between the 27 capitals.

"It's not so easy to calibrate sanctions if you want to spare the population," a senior EU diplomat said on possible new measures against Minsk.

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