The head of NATO has linked the Kremlin to the hijack of a Ryanair jet by Belarus as Russia begins blocking flights skirting around its ally’s airspace.
Jens Stoltenberg, speaking on the deck of British aircraft carrier Queen Elizabeth today, said it is ‘hard to believe’ that the Kremlin was not involved in Sunday’s operation to divert the Ryanair jet so a dissident journalist could be arrested.
‘We know the very close relationship between Russia and Belarus and therefore it’s hard to believe that the regime in Minsk could do something like this without any kind of coordination with Russia,’ he told Sky News.
Meanwhile European airlines revealed they have been blocked from flying into Russia because their flight plans involved skirting around Belarus in the latest tit-for-tat move between western leaders and powers in the east.
Air France and Austrian Airlines both said they have been forced to cancel trips after flight plans submitted to Russia ahead of the journey which showed them diverted around Belarus were rejected.
Stoltenberg spoke during NATO exercises which include drills close to Russia’s border, and ahead of a meeting between Putin and Belarus dictator Lukashenko in Sochi later today as the two sides square off.
NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg (pictured) has said it is ‘hard to believe’ that Belarus would have diverted a Ryanair plane to arrest a journalist without input from Moscow
Stoltenberg spoke from the deck of UK aircraft carrier Queen Elizabeth during NATO’s largest exercises this year including drills near the border with Russia
The Queen Elizabeth, on her maiden deployment, is taking part in naval drills off the coast of Portugal while separate land drills take place in Romania
The exercises involve 18 ships, a dozen aircraft, hundreds of armoured vehicles plus tanks, and 9,000 personnel taking place in drills that include manoeuvres in the Black Sea and Romania, close to the Russian border.
Big Lizzie is currently off the coast of Portugal taking part in the Maritime Live part of the exercise, which involves testing NATO’s new command structure.
A separate land-based drill dubbed Noble Jump is taking place in eastern Europe.
NATO has previously described the plot to arrest journalist Roman Protasevich and girlfriend Sofia Sapega as a ‘state-sponsored hijacking’.
The pair were returning from a holiday in Greece to Lithuania on Sunday when a Belarusian military jet was scrambled to divert the flight to Minsk under the pretense of a bomb threat.
Once the jet had landed, Protasevich – who has been highly critical of Belarus dictator Alexander Lukashenko – and his partner were separated from the other passengers and arrested.
They have since appeared in forced confession videos in which they ‘admit’ to having been involved in opposition political activity, as allies warn they are almost certainly being tortured.
Russia is a close ally of Belarus – a former Soviet state – and is virtually the only country to have supported Lukashenko’s decision to divert the jet, as western leaders lined up to condemn it and cut ties.
Moscow’s exact role in the hijacking remains unclear. It was initially thought that Russian KGB agents may have been on the Ryanair jet overseeing the operation, though it is also possible they were from the namesake Belarusian spy agency.
Both Belarus and the Kremlin deny any presence of spies on the jet.
In response to the hijack, EU leaders have diverted their airlines around Belarus and moved to ban its planes from landing at European airports, potentially costing the regime millions of dollars per year.
Putin has been virtually the only supporter of Belarus dictator Lukashenko over the plane hijacking, and the pair are due to meet later today in Sochi (file image)
The US and European leaders are also preparing further ‘targeted’ sanctions against members of the Lukashenko regime.
In a tit-for-tat move, Russia has since blocked European airlines from landing at its airports if they have diverted around Belarus during their flights.
Air France and Austrian Airlines said they have both had to cancel flights to Russia after authorities there rejected flight plans they had submitted ahead of the journey, which skirted around Belarus.
Meanwhile G7 global powers have also banded together to demand the release of Mr Protasevich ‘as well as all other journalists and political prisoners held in Belarus’.
The European Union’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell separately added that proposals are ‘on the table’ to target key sectors of the Belarusian economy.
Borrell mooted targeting the potash fertiliser sector or refusing gas being delivered to the bloc via Belarus over the ‘hijacking’ of the plane by the regime.
He was echoed by German Foreign Minister Heiko Mass also raised the possibility of hitting key firms in the fertiliser sector and said the EU could curb the Belarusian government’s ability to issue bonds in Europe.
But he played down the likelihood of the bloc agreeing quickly to reject gas transiting through pipelines in Belarus, insisting it was ‘more of a medium and long-term issue’.
The bloc was also looking at ‘targeted sanctions’ against the Belarusian authorities to add to the 88 regime figures and seven companies already on a blacklist over a brutal crackdown on the opposition after last year’s disputed presidential election.
At a briefing in Vilnius, where she fled to after last year’s election, exiled Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya on Thursday called for an ‘economic boycott of the regime’.
Christophe Deloire, the head of media rights watchdog Reporters Sans Frontieres (Reporters Without Borders) was also in Lithuania to file a legal complaint against Lukashenko with prosecutors investigating Sunday’s incident.
Later on Thursday he protested on the Belarusian border along with dozens of Belarusian and Lithuanian journalists.
The UN civil aviation agency was meanwhile due to hold an urgent meeting Thursday to discuss Belarus after Western powers on the UN Security Council called on it to investigate Minsk’s diversion of the Ryanair flight carrying Protasevich.
Roman Protasevich and his girlfriend Sofia Sapega were arrested in Minsk on Sunday after they plane they were on was diverted while in Belarusian airspace
A Belarus fighter jet escorted the plane to Minsk on the pretense of a bomb threat, before Protasevich and Sapega were hauled off and arrested
The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) Council will meet as the consequences of the incident play out in Europe’s airspace.
EU countries are banning Belarusian carriers and the EU has also urged airlines to avoid Belarusian airspace.
On Thursday, Austrian Airlines said it had cancelled a Vienna-Moscow flight after Russian authorities did not approve a route change for it to avoid Belarusian airspace.
An Air France flight from Paris to Moscow on Wednesday had to be cancelled for the same reason.
The ICAO has no power to impose sanctions. But European leaders this week agreed to cut air links with Belarus and told airlines to avoid the country’s airspace.
The call at the UN for the ICAO investigation echoes an earlier one from NATO. But Russia’s support for Minsk means the UN Security Council is unlikely to agree a collective statement.
A defiant Lukashenko said he had ‘acted lawfully to protect our people’ from an alleged bomb threat on the plane, in an address to parliament on Wednesday.
The criticism was nothing more than another attempt by his opponents to undermine his rule, he added.
Lukashenko – often dubbed ‘Europe’s last dictator’ – is facing some of the strongest international pressure of his nearly 27 years ruling ex-Soviet Belarus.
He and his allies are already under a series of Western sanctions over a brutal crackdown on mass protests that followed his disputed re-election to a sixth term last August.
But he continues to enjoy solid support from Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is hosting the Belarusian leader on Friday.
The UN civil aviation agency will launch an investigation into the May 23 diversion by Belarus of a European flight and arrest of a dissident on board, it announced on Thursday.
The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) Council ‘decided to undertake a fact-finding investigation of this event,’ the statement said.
It added that, at a meeting, the body ‘underlined the importance of establishing the facts of what happened, and of understanding whether there had been any breach by any ICAO Member State of international aviation law.’
The council ‘requested the ICAO Secretariat to prepare an interim report to the Council for a subsequent meeting of the current session.’
Belarus’s strongman President Alexander Lukashenko sparked international outrage by dispatching a fighter jet Sunday to intercept a Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius carrying opposition journalist and activist Roman Protasevich, 26, and his girlfriend Sofia Sapega, 23.
His parents pleaded Thursday for international help to get him released, and the G7 global powers also demanded he be freed, with the EU’s foreign policy chief threatening economic sanctions.
The ICAO, of which Belarus is a member, has no power to order sanctions. But European leaders this week agreed to cut air links with Belarus and told airlines to avoid the country’s airspace.
Its meeting Thursday came after Western powers on the UN Security Council called on it to investigate, echoing an earlier call from NATO.
But Russia’s support for Minsk means the UN Security Council is unlikely to agree on a collective statement.
Leading Belarusian opposition figures and journalists in prison or exile