EU condemns hijacking, urges airlines to avoid overflight of Belarus

Alexandros Michailidis

The European Council is urging all European airlines to avoid overflight of Belarus following the forced landing of Ryanair flight FR4978 in Minsk, Belarus, on May 23, 2021.  

On May 24, 2021, the European Council issued conclusions in which European leaders “strongly” condemn the forced landing of Ryanair flight FR4978 and the detention of journalist Raman Pratasevich and student Sofia Sapega. 

The EU Council demanded the release of Pratasevich and Sapega, expand the sanction list and sanction more persons and entities, and expressed solidarity with Latvia after its diplomats were expelled from Belarus. 

Describing the forced landing of Ryanair’s 737 as a move that “endangering aviation safety”, the Council also issued three strongly-worded action points concerning aviation. In particular, the EU Council directed the International Civil Aviation Organization, the aviation agency of the United Nations, to urgently investigate the incident, described as “unprecedented and unacceptable”. 

The authority also urged air carriers based in the union to avoid overflight of Belarus and called to adopt measures that would ban the overflight of EU airspace by Belarusian airlines as well as prevent flights of Belarusian air carriers access EU airports.  

Prior to the Council summit, several nations already voiced their outrage regarding the hijack. The Foreign Affairs Committees of Czech Republic, Germany, Poland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Ireland, the United Kingdom, and the United States published a joint statement in which they condemned a “reckless act [that] put the passengers and crew in grave danger” and called for an investigation from the ICAO.

The ICAO said the incident infringed on international air law. “ICAO is strongly concerned by the apparent forced landing of a Ryanair flight and its passengers, which could be in contravention of the Chicago Convention,” the agency said.

The International Air Transport Association, which regroups 290 airlines, called for a full investigation. “We strongly condemn any interference or requirement for landing of civil aviation operations that is inconsistent with the rules of international law,” IATA said.

On May 23, 2021, Ryanair’s Boeing 737, registered as SP-RSM, was flying from Athens,  Greece, to Vilnius, Lithuania. When the aircraft was passing Belarus airspace approximately 73 kilometers away from the Lithuanian border, the aircraft was intercepted by an armed Belarusian MiG -29 fighter jet and diverted to Belarus capital Minsk, 183 kilometers away.  Upon landing, Protasevich and Sapega were arrested by the KGB, the Belarusian security services. 

In response to the event, several airlines, airBaltic and WizzAir, preemptively began diverting flights to avoid Belarusian airspace. 

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