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Russia blocks flights as West's standoff with Belarus over diverted plane hits international air travel

Fallout from Belarus flight grounding
Americans warned not to travel to Belarus after flight grounding 06:17

Moscow — Air France canceled its Paris to Moscow flight for the second day in a row on Thursday after Russia refused to approve a new route bypassing Belarus, the company said in a statement.

"Yesterday, the flight was postponed, and today it was canceled for the same reason — we have no clearance," an Air France representative was quoted as saying by Russian state news agency RIA Novosti. "We canceled the flight because we do not have a new path for entering Russian territory."

Russia also denied an Austrian Airlines flight from Vienna to Moscow permission to enter Russian airspace on Thursday after that plane avoided flying over Belarus.

The flight blockages appeared to be a clear show of solidarity from Russia for unrepentant Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, who's facing a furious backlash from the West over the forced diversion of a Ryanair plane.

Ryanair pilot forced to land in Belarus questions air traffic control over bomb threat 02:01

Belarusian airspace has been largely clear of traffic since Sunday, when the country's aviation authorities told the Ryanair flight crew there was a bomb threat to the aircraft and forced it to land — with a fighter jet escort for at least part of the way — well off its designated flight path in the capital, Minsk.

When the plane, which had been scheduled to fly from Greece over Belarus to its destination in Lithuania, touched down in the Belarusian capital, opposition journalist Raman Pratasevich and his traveling companion were both taken off the flight and arrested.

European leaders reacted quickly to what they called a brazen "hijacking" of the commercial airliner, banning Belarus' state carrier Belavia from EU airspace and telling international airlines to avoid flying over Belarus.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken called the plane diversion "shocking" and accused Belarus of endangering the lives of the Ryanair passengers, including some Americans. He joined EU leaders in calling for Pratasevich's immediate release and for a review of the incident by the International Civil Aviation Organization.

Calls grow to investigate Belarus plane diversion 07:03

On Wednesday, the State Department renewed its "Do Not Travel" advisory for Belarus, warning Americans specifically about an "arbitrary enforcement of laws" in the country which creates the "risk of detention."

A total boycott on air travel to and from the country could hit the Belarusian economy hard. In recent years, Lukashenko's government had invested heavily to make Minsk into a booming transit hub as some international airlines sought to avoid flying over neighboring Ukraine after the 2014 downing of a Malaysia Airlines plane.

The Belarusian capital also benefited from the severing of the direct flight connection between Moscow and Ukraine's capital Kyiv in 2015. The domestic airline Belavia mostly served transit passengers — and brought the country millions of dollars in revenue by doing so.

President Vladimir Putin has been a valuable ally to Lukashenko, often referred to as "Europe's last dictator." When the Belarusian autocrat faced widespread anti-government protests last year, which Pratasevich helped to organize, it was Putin who backed him up and helped him see off the challenge to his decades-long rule.

Russia's President Putin meets with his Belarusian counterpart Lukashenko in Sochi
Russian President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with his Belarusian counterpart Alexander Lukashenko during a meeting in Sochi, Russia, September 14, 2020, in a still image taken from video provided by the Russian president's office. Russian Presidential Executive Office/Reuters

Russia hasn't imposed any restrictions at all on Belarusian air traffic following Sunday's incident, and a Kremlin spokesman said Putin's government saw no reason to doubt the widely-debunked claim by Lukashenko that it was an emailed bomb threat which prompted the flight diversion.

The Kremlin declined to comment on the cancellation of the Air France and Austrian Airlines flights, referring journalists to Russian air control authorities.  

Lukasheko, meanwhile, may be facing scorn from virtually all points west, but he was scheduled to meet with Putin personally in the Russian resort town of Sochi on Friday. Belarusian officials said the agenda of the bilateral talks would focus on the economy, but Lukashenko was expected to "brief" Putin on the Ryanair incident.

Meanwhile, in Lithuania, exiled Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya called for a "Global Demonstration of Solidarity" with Belarus on Friday.

The date, May 29, will mark one year since her husband, prominent Lukashenko critic and former presidential candidate Sergey Tikhanovsky, was thrown in jail in Belarus.

"This is a great way to remind all like-minded people that you are with them — support your city or village… help political prisoners through solidarity funds," she said in a video posted on her YouTube channel. "If you live abroad, gather your kindred spirits and go out for a demonstration to support Belarusians."

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