Russia's Putin and Belarus' Lukashenko go for boat ride after diverted plane outcry

Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) and Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko smile during their informal meeting in Sochi, Russia, on May 29, 2021. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

MOSCOW (AFP) - Russian President Vladimir Putin took Belarus strongman Alexander Lukashenko for a boat trip on Saturday (May 29) as the close allies met for a second day and held "informal talks" amid the outcry after Minsk diverted a European plane.

"Yesterday was the day of official talks and today it's informal," Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov told reporters of the meetings in Sotchi on the Black Sea.

Putin and Lukashenko, had "taken advantage of the fine weather" and "gone on a boat trip", he added.

The Telegram channel "Pool Pervogo", which runs an unofficial account of the Belarusian presidency, released a photo of the pair in casual wear on what appeared to be the boat.

Saturday's talks had centred on economic cooperation and the Covid-19 pandemic, Peskov said.

But they had also spoken of last Sunday's events when Belarus scrambled a military jet to divert a Ryanair plane and arrest journalist Roman Protasevich and his Russian girlfriend on board.

"Lukashenko provided his counterpart detailed information about what happened on board the Ryanair aircraft," said Peskov.

Moscow was "not indifferent to the fate" of the detained journalist's girlfriend, Sofia Sapega, a Russian citizen, the spokesman went on.

Following the forced diversion, the United States on Friday announced punitive measures targeting the regime while the European Union urged EU-based carriers to avoid Belarusian airspace and has promised fresh sanctions.

According to the Kremlin, Lukashenko has not sought additional economic assistance from Moscow. The neighbours would work on "organising the air link" between the neighbours following EU restrictions.

Russia and Belarus have formed a "union state" that links their economies and militaries but the Kremlin has been pushing for closer integration.

Peskov reiterated Moscow's call for a "full inquiry" into the diversion of the flight after accusing the West of drawing "hasty conclusions".

Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) speaks with Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko during their informal meeting aboard a boat in Sochi, Russia. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

The head of Belarusian airline Belavia, Igor Tcherguinets, hit out Saturday at the EU restrictions which he termed a "complete violation of the foundations of democracy".

"Innocent, Belavia is punished even before the opening of a proper inquiry. Cowardice." he posted on Facebook.

The Media Freedom Coalition of 27 countries including the United States, Britain and several EU states called Saturday for Belarus to release 26-year-old anti-regime journalist and activist Protasevich.

"The unprecedented and shocking action constitutes a full frontal attack on media freedom," the statement said.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.