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Airlines re-route flights to avoid Belarus airspace as pressure mounts over ‘outrageous’ behaviour

Airlines have re-routed flights to avoid Belarus’s airspace and Belarusian planes face a possible ban from Europe as international outrage mounted over the forcing down of a jetliner and arrest of a dissident journalist on board.

European Union members accused Belarus of hijacking and piracy over the interception of the Ryanair plane as it crossed the country on a flight from Greece to Lithuania, and diplomats said France, Ireland and Estonia would raise the incident at a private meeting of the United Nations Security Council on Wednesday.

“The behaviour of the Belarus regime is outrageous, illegal, and completely unacceptable… we also condemn this kind of dangerous interference in civil aviation,” Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told reporters.

A video released on Tuesday showed 26-year-old Roman Protasevich, who was pulled from the passenger plane after Belarus scrambled a warplane to escort it to Minsk on Sunday, confessing to having organised anti-government demonstrations.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko must pay a “bitter price” for detaining Mr Protasevich.

Exiled Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya said the footage showed Mr Protasevich had been tortured.

“He said that he was treated lawfully but he’s clearly beaten and under pressure. There is no doubt that he was tortured. He was taken hostage,” she told a news conference in the Lithuanian capital Vilnius.

Belarus did not immediately comment on the torture allegation but has consistently denied abusing detainees.

Rights groups have documented hundreds of cases of what they describe as abuse and forced confessions during a crackdown on pro-democracy opponents of Lukashenko since last year.

Mr Lukashenko, whose opponents accuse him of rigging an August 2020 election, has so far shrugged off foreign sanctions, which mostly consist of barring various officials from travelling or doing business in the United States and EU.

The Belarusian leader enjoys financial and security support from Russia.

The White House said US President Joe Biden would discuss the incident with Russian President Vladimir Putin at their summit next month but added the United States did not believe Russia had played any role in it.

Belarusian state media have reported that Mr Lukashenko personally ordered the flight to be intercepted.

Belarus says it was responding to a bomb scare that later proved to be a false alarm.

Belarusian authorities on Tuesday released a transcript of a conversation between the plane and an air traffic controller in which the pilot repeatedly questioned information about the threat before agreeing to land at Minsk.

The transcript, which could not be independently verified, differs from excerpts previously released by Belarus state TV, which had suggested the pilot had asked to land in Minsk, rather than that the controller had advised him to do so.

Mr Protasevich and his girlfriend Sofia Sagega, 23, were arrested when the plane landed.

In the video released overnight, Mr Protasevich can be seen seated at a desk in a dark hooded sweatshirt.

“I can state that I don’t have any health issues, including diseases of the heart or any other organs. Police officers are treating me properly and according to the law,” he says, adding that he had “confessed to organising mass protests in Minsk”.

Ms Sagega’s mother Anna Dudich said that her daughter, a student and a Russian citizen who is originally from Belarus, had steered clear of politics but that she feared for her health and safety in detention.

“My hopes are now probably based on a miracle and on the knowledge that my daughter is definitely not guilty of anything,” Ms Dudich said.

“She simply showed up in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

Russia’s foreign ministry said Ms Sagega may also face criminal charges.

In response to the incident, the European air traffic control agency Eurocontrol recommended that EU and UK carriers that fly over Belarus should re-route via the Baltic states.

The UK also said it was banning Belarusian airlines from entering its airspace.

European Union leaders at a summit on Monday had called for airlines based in the 27-member bloc to halt flights over Belarusian airspace, which is along a major corridor connecting Europe and Asia and earns hard currency from overflight rights.

Belgium’s Charles Michel, who chairs EU summits, tweeted “Europe in action,” with a picture of a flight tracker map of the continent showing no planes flying over Belarus.