Canada’s Ministers of Foreign Affairs and Transport issued a joint statement late Tuesday advising Canadian air operators to “avoid operating at any altitude within Belarusian airspace due to serious safety and security concerns posed to civil aviation operations.”
The move comes just days after Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko scrambled a fighter jet, forcing a Ryanair flight from Greece to Lithuania to land in Minsk while it was flying over Belarus under the pretext of a bomb scare. However, when the plane landed, authorities detained a dissident journalist on board, then allowed the plane to continue its journey.
Marc Garneau, Minister of Foreign Affairs, and Omar Alghabra, Minister of Transport, called the incident “shocking” and “brazen.”
In their statement, they said, “Canada strongly condemns the forced diversion of Ryanair Flight 4978 under false pretenses and the subsequent arrest of journalist Roman Protasevich by Belarus. This reckless, brazen act by the Belarusian regime jeopardized the safety of passengers and constitutes serious interference in the fundamental principles and international rules that ensure civil aviation safety around the world.”
The statement goes on to add: “This shocking action also constitutes a blatant attack on media freedom with serious implications on the rights of freedom of expression. We call on Belarus to release Mr. Protasevich immediately.”
A Global News report notes that during the incident on Sunday,”Belarusian authorities scrambled a fighter jet and flagged what turned out to be a false bomb alert which forced a Ryanair passenger plane to land…Authorities then detained 26-year-old opposition journalist Roman Protasevich who was on board.”
Canada’s PM has already condemned the incident, saying at a Tuesday press conference that the forced landing under false pretenses, followed by the arrest of the opposition journalist was a “clear attack on democracy” and required action in response.
All three politicians called for the immediate release of Protasevich.
Meanwhile, Global News reports that: “Belarus plans to shutter its embassy in Canada as of Sept. 1, 2021. The consular section of the embassy will stop operations on July 10, 2021.”
And the report also notes that other nations are also taking similar action. EU leaders met Monday to call on airlines in member countries to cease flying over Belarus, and directed officials to both draw up sanctions against the country and find a way to prevent its airlines from the EU, with the Global news report noting that Belarus is on a “major corridor connecting Europe and Asia and earns hard currency from overflight rights.” Britain’s foreign secretary has also advised U.K. airlines to stop overflights of the country. And in the U.S, President Joe Biden told reporters Tuesday that sanctions are also “in play.”
The statement by Canada’s ministers of Foreign Affairs and Transport indicated Ottawa may also apply sanctions. “We are assessing, with like-minded partners, response options that include sanctions to ensure these unacceptable actions have consequences.”
Aviation industry officials are also responding to incident. The Wall Street Journal says, “The incident has sparked an international outcry and raised questions over the legality of the plane’s grounding and the ramifications for the airline industry,” as well as “the global aviation industry’s alarm over the diversion.”
It quotes Ryanair’s CEO Michael O’Leary calling the incident “a case of state-sponsored hijacking,” and notes other “industry executives and aviation-safety officials said they couldn’t remember a recent precedent involving a commercial jetliner.”
“We’re in uncharted territory,” said Conor Nolan, chairman of the board of governors of the Virginia-based Flight Safety Foundation, which advocates for air safety and is joining an industry-wide call for an investigation of the incident. “If we lose confidence in the ability to safely fly over states, it’s going to significantly damage trust in international commercial aviation.”