Two airlines cancel flights to Moscow while EU discusses sanctions on Belarus


Two European airlines have had to cancel flights to Moscow after Russian authorities did not approve new routes that would bypass Belarus airspace in response to Minsk’s interception of a commercial aircraft.

Air France and Austrian Airlines have sought to redirect flights flying mainly over Belarus after EU governments asked their airlines avoid the airspace of the country following a decision by Belarusian authorities on Sunday to divert Ryanair flight 4978, which was carrying an opposition activist.

The two airlines said Russian aviation authorities had not approved the new routes, leading to the cancellation of a flight from Paris to Moscow on Wednesday, and from Vienna to Moscow on Thursday. On Friday an Air France flight to Russia was still awaiting permission to use a new route avoiding Belarus.

Several other European carriers, including KLM and British Airways, have been allowed to land in Russia with new flight routes, however. The Kremlin did not comment and referred the questions to aviation authorities.

Airline industry insiders have become concerned about the politicization of the airspace after the Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius was canceled. forced to land in Minsk due to an alleged bomb threat. Two of the 126 passengers, anti-regime activist Roman Protasevich and his Russian partner, were arrested after the plane crashed. Three other passengers were in Minsk.

However, the alleged bomb threat cited by the Belarusian authorities was sent in an email after the plan was diverted, according to email provider Proton Technologies. “We cannot access or verify the content of the message. However … we can confirm that the message in question was sent after the aircraft was redirected,” the company said.

Ryanair has labeled the forced landing as an act of “aviation piracy”, and the UK and EU have urged their airlines to avoid Belarusian airspace, banning the state carrier from its airports, and promised to impose fresh economic sanctions on the regime. The United States has demanded the immediate release of Protasevich and his partner.

Russia he distinguished himself by supporting Minsk, calling the EU’s reaction “hysterical”. Russian President Vladimir Putin and Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko will meet in Russia on Friday.

Willie Walsh, head of the International Air Transport Association, said it was “disturbing” to see a commercial flight diverted “for clearly false reasons”.

“I would like to think that this does not set a precedent. It is important to build on public and united condemnation. . . to ensure that we do not see a recurrence of this behavior, ”he said Wednesday at a media conference

While avoiding Belarusian airspace adds miles and fuel costs to some trips heading east from Europe, airlines have respected it. However, any problem with Russia would be more damaging, given its size.

The International Civil Aviation Organization, a UN forum that sets standards for civil aviation around the world, will hold a meeting on the incident later Thursday, and has already said that the Belarus’ actions could have violated the Chicago Convention governing civil flight.

Meanwhile, EU foreign ministers held initial talks Thursday on punitive measures against the Belarusian regime, with the country’s lucrative potash sector at the top of the agenda.

The European bloc will target “significantly” the economic structures and financial transactions in Belarus, Heiko Maas, Germany’s foreign minister, told reporters ahead of the informal Lisbon meeting.

“Air piracy and the detention of the two passengers are completely unacceptable, and we will begin to discuss the implementation of sectoral and economic sanctions,” said Josep Borrell, head of EU foreign policy.

Jean Asselborn, Luxembourg’s foreign minister, said potash – a crucial ingredient in fertilizers – was the “key word” because Belarus is one of the world’s largest suppliers. “I think it would be very bad for Lukashenko if we managed anything in this area,” Asselborn said.

Member States are expected to pass the new measures at a meeting of foreign ministers on June 21, diplomats say.

More information from Max Seddon in Moscow

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