Raab welcomes probe into ‘grave violation’ that led to Belarus flight diversion

The Foreign Secretary has welcomed a UN agency probe to understand what led to the “grave violation of international law” resulting in a Ryanair flight being diverted to Belarus, allowing a prominent critic to be arrested.

Dominic Raab said he hoped the International Civil Aviation Organization’s (ICAO) fact-finding investigation into the events that forced the landing of Ryanair flight FR4978 in Minsk on Sunday will discover the “full circumstances” leading up to what he branded an “attack” on global aviation rules.

The opening of an inquiry comes after the foreign ministers of G7 nations on Thursday jointly called on the ICAO, a United Nations agency which helps govern the rules of the sky, to act.

The Foreign Office said the plane was grounded “on the basis of a false bomb scare” in order to arrest an opposition journalist, Roman Protasevich.

The reporter was one of more than 100 passengers on board the Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius when it was forced to change course to head for the Belarus capital, escorted by a MiG fighter jet.

Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab has welcomed a probe into the Ryanair incident
Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab has welcomed a probe into the Ryanair incident (Hannah McKay/PA)

Mr Protasevich was captured and, in a video released by Belarusian authorities on Monday evening, appeared to admit – allegedly under duress – he was involved in organising mass protests in Minsk last year.

Mr Raab said: “The UK welcomes the ICAO investigation into the Lukashenko regime’s forced landing of Ryanair flight FR4978.

“We join our international partners in wanting to know the full circumstances that led up to this grave violation of international law and the attack on the principles that underpin civil aviation.”

Government officials said the targeting of the Ryanair flight by President Lukashenko – who Mr Raab has suggested could have been supported by Russia – was a further move by the Belarusian authorities in its “ongoing war” against independent journalism and opposition voices.

Alexander Lukashenko has been president of Belarus since the post was established in 1994 and won re-election for a sixth time in 2020 with 80% of the vote, in a ballot deemed “neither free nor fair” by the European Union.

Since winning the disputed election last August, Mr Lukashenko has cracked down on dissenting voices, with many opposition figures arrested and others forced into exile.

The Prime Minister warned of “consequences” this week over the move to ground the plane, with Transport Secretary Grant Shapps announcing on Tuesday that Belarusian airlines will be prevented from entering UK airspace unless specifically authorised.

Although Belavia, the country’s state-owned airline, does not have any scheduled flights through UK airspace, the Department for Transport said it had done so in the past, flying to places such as north Africa and Ireland.

It follows Monday’s announcement that the EU and the UK would issue new sanctions against Belarus in light of the arrest, with Mr Shapps instructing the Civil Aviation Authority to request airlines avoid Belarusian air space “to keep passengers safe”.

On Monday, he also suspended the operating permit for Belavia, while EU leaders have called on member states to do similar.