Efforts to punish Belarus for its forced grounding of a Ryanair flight wreaked havoc on European airspace Wednesday, with airplanes returning to base or failing to take off.
It’s the result of an EU call to ban Belarusian airlines from flying in the bloc’s airspace or landing at EU airports and for European airlines to avoid flying across Belarus.
But Alexander Lukashenko, the authoritarian leader of Belarus, was adamant Wednesday that he had done nothing wrong in forcing the Ryanair plane to land in Minsk on Sunday, after which opposition blogger Roman Protasevich and his companion were removed and arrested.
He insisted he was acting after Hamas, the Middle Eastern militant group, sent a threatening note from Switzerland.
“I ask you to understand one simple thing: if the plane had a bomb and the terrorists intended to blow it up, we would not have been able to do anything about it. But I could not allow the plane to fall on our people’s heads,” he told the Belarusian parliament, according to the state-controlled Belta news agency.
A Hamas spokesman denied the group had any knowledge of, or connection to, the note, according to media reports.
Lukashenko also downplayed reports that the plane was forced to turn for Minsk by a fighter jet, putting the blame for the decision to land in the Belarusian capital on the crew, and saying that the fighter had been scrambled “according to all the rules.”
“A decision to land the plane was not ours,” he said.
Those justifications are unlikely to lessen the outrage over the Ryanair incident, and its impact on European aviation. On Wednesday, the EU Aviation Safety Agency issued an air safety bulletin recommending that airlines from EASA member countries avoid Belarusian airspace “unless such operations are deemed necessary for safe operations in unforeseen circumstances.”
On Wednesday, a flight by Belavia, the Belarusian flag carrier, from Minsk to Barcelona circled along the Polish border and then headed back to the Belarusian capital after Polish air control authorities said “the aircraft did not get permission to enter French airspace.” Another Belavia flight from Minsk to Warsaw was allowed to land, but the Polish government said it would prepare an order barring such flights that will go into effect on Thursday.
France’s Transport Minister Jean-Baptiste Djebbari said Monday that the country would suspend the authorization of Belavia flights to France.
Belavia announced it is suspending flights to Finland and the Czech Republic as of Wednesday, adding that Sweden and Latvia also canceled its permits.
Several airlines confirmed this week that they would fly around Belarusian airspace, including Lufthansa, KLM and Air France.
Air France’s decision to dodge Belarusian airspace led to retaliation from Russia, according to the airline. One of its flights, scheduled to leave Paris Charles de Gaulle to Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport, was postponed Wednesday after Russia blocked it from entering the country, according to the airline.
“Air France confirms that it had to postpone flight AF1154 (CDG/SVO) on 26 May 2021 for operational reasons linked to the bypassing of Belarusian airspace, requiring a new authorization from the Russian authorities to enter their territory,” the airline wrote in an emailed statement. “The flight has been postponed to 27 May and a further update will be provided this evening,” it added.
Lukashenko insisted that the actions of his forces were “super professional.”
Immediately after Sunday’s incident, Lukashenko’s office reported on social media that he had ordered a fighter jet to escort the passenger plane, without providing further details.
“We had to do what we did to ensure safety in the air and most importantly on the ground. We did everything we could to save people,” he said on Wednesday — the first time he has addressed the issue.
Lukashenko, who has been battling to stay in power after a fraudulent election in August unleashed months of massive protests against his regime, accused Protasevich of being a Western spy.
“Let his many Western defenders now answer the question: what secret services did this man work for? Not only him but also his accomplice?” Lukashenko said.
Protasevich, 26, is the editor of an opposition online news portal based in Lithuania that highlights government repression and helps organize protests. He and his companion, 23-year-old Sofia Sapaga, a Russian citizen, were taken from the Ryanair plane, arrested and face charges of organizing riots and violating the public order.
Government media have shown clips of both of them making confessions.
Lukashenko had additional warnings for the many opposition activists who have sought refuge abroad.
“We know all of you. Bringing you to justice is a matter of time,” he said.