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European leaders are urging airlines to avoid Belarus after ‘state-sponsored hijacking’ of Ryanair flight

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The European Union will sanction Belarus and call on its airlines to avoid airspace there, after a Ryanair flight from Greece to Lithuania was forced to land in the country, and a dissident journalist on board was arrested.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen on Monday said the bloc is “closing our airspace to planes from Belarus” and calling on EU airlines not to fly over the country. She added that “further economic sanctions will be presented soon.”

“This is an attack on freedom of expression and this is an attack on European sovereignty,” she said in a news conference. “This outrageous behavior needs a strong answer, therefore the European Council decided that there will be additional sanctions on individuals that are involved in the hijacking but this time also on businesses and economic entities that are financing this [Belarusian] regime.”

The announcement comes as some international airlines said they would avoid flying over Belarus following the incident. Ryanair flight 4978 was ordered to divert to Minsk by Belarusian air traffic control on Sunday over a supposed security alert. Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary on Monday accused Belarus of “state-sponsored hijacking, state-sponsored piracy.”

Germany’s Lufthansa reversed course late on Monday after saying earlier in the day that it continued to fly over Belarus and that a scheduled flight from Frankfurt to Minsk would go ahead. “Due to the current dynamic situation, we are suspending the operation in Belarusian airspace for the time being,” a company spokesperson told CNN Business.

Scandinavian Airlines (SAS) said in a statement on Monday that it will reroute its twice weekly flights between Oslo and Kiev, the capitals of Norway and Ukraine, in line with instructions from the Swedish Transport Agency.

“Safety is always our highest priority. We follow the development closely and are in close contact with Scandinavian and European aviation authorities and follow their instructions,” SAS added.

Earlier on Monday, Latvia’s flag carrier AirBaltic said it had “decided to avoid entering Belarus airspace until the situation becomes clearer or a decision is issued by the authorities.”

Cyprus-registered Avia Solutions Group also said its airlines based in the Baltic region will not be using Belarusian airspace and low-cost Hungarian carrier Wizz Air said it had rerouted a flight between Ukraine and Estonia on Monday, adding in a statement: “We are continuously monitoring and evaluating the situation.”

UK Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said on Twitter that he has instructed the UK Civil Aviation Authority to request airlines “avoid Belarusian airspace in order to keep passengers safe.” He said that he has also suspended Belarus’ flag carrier Belavia’s operating permit.

The Ryanair flight was about to begin its descent to Vilnius in Lithuania when it suddenly changed direction, turning sharply east and descending towards the Belarusian capital.

One of the passengers on the aircraft was Belarusian journalist and opposition activist Roman Protasevich, who was arrested as soon as the plane landed, according to the Belarus Interior Ministry.

“It appears the intent of the authorities was to remove a journalist and his traveling companion,” O’Leary told Ireland radio station Newstalk. He said Belarusian secret security agents were also on board the flight, which had taken off from Athens.

US Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said Monday that the US government was assessing whether American airlines were safe flying over Belarus airspace. “We, both in terms of the international bodies we’re part of and as an administration with the FAA [Federal Aviation Administration] are looking at that,” he told CNN’s John Berman.

Willie Walsh, the director general of the International Air Transport Association (IATA) and former CEO of British Airways’ parent company IAG, told CNN he couldn’t recall an incident like this in his career.

“We strongly condemn the actions of the government of Belarus in intercepting this flight and forcing it to land,” he told CNN’s Becky Anderson. “It clearly was an extremely dangerous action by the government. It put the crew of the Ryanair aircraft in a very difficult situation.”

“The information that’s available to us certainly suggests that this was an unlawful act taken to interfere with the proper operation of a civil passenger aircraft,” Walsh added.

Walsh said it was up to individual airlines and pilots to decide whether to fly over Belarus, but he suspected that more airlines would look to avoid the airspace as “more information becomes available.”

He also warned that diverting around Belarusian airspace could itself lead to other risks as a number of areas, particularly in the case of Eastern Ukraine, are already avoided by airlines.

Dutch carrier KLM told CNN Business that it continues to operate flights to and from Belarus as normal.

— Karen Smith, Tim Lister, Chris Liakos, Lauren Gunn and Sam Fossum contributed reporting.

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