UN aviation agency to probe grounding of plane by Belarus

ICAO report out by June; Minsk denies it acted illegally in Irish jet's forced landing

A Ryanair plane at the Minsk international airport after being forced to land on Sunday while flying from Athens to Vilnius.
A Ryanair plane at the Minsk international airport after being forced to land on Sunday while flying from Athens to Vilnius.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

OTTAWA (Canada) • The United Nations' International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) has agreed to investigate the forced grounding of a Ryanair passenger plane in Belarusian capital Minsk, an incident that prompted international outrage.

ICAO's 36-nation governing council met on Thursday after the United States and several allies demanded an investigation into the incident, which British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab called "a grave violation of international law".

Irish Transport Minister Eamon Ryan said ICAO would produce an interim report by June 25.

The organisation said in a statement after the meeting that its council had expressed its "strong concern" about the incident.

The probe will be a fact-finding investigation designed mainly to determine whether international aviation rules were breached. ICAO has little scope to punish member states other than by suspending voting rights.

Belarus on Sunday scrambled a fighter and used a false bomb alert to divert the Irish airliner to Minsk and detain a dissident Belarusian journalist who was on the flight.

The plane, travelling from Athens to Lithuanian capital Vilnius, was almost in Lithuanian airspace when ordered to land.

"These unacceptable actions were an attack on European aviation security and put in danger the lives of the passengers and crew as they travelled between two European Union capitals," said Mr Ryan.

Minsk, which is now facing calls for sanctions, rejected charges that it acted illegally and accused the West of using the episode to wage "hybrid war" against it.

The council urged ICAO members to cooperate with the probe. "They could not just close their eyes," one source familiar with the meeting said, adding that safety had been a key topic.

Two sources familiar with the meeting said Russia and China both declined to support an investigation.

Russia, which has accused the West of hypocrisy, told delegates that what happened in Minsk was not an isolated incident and recalled reports that Washington had caused a jet thought to be carrying fugitive Edward Snowden to land in Austria in 2013, the sources said.

China argued for more time before taking action, one source said.

Russian and Chinese diplomats did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Russia said yesterday that Western countries are being irresponsible and endangering passengers by banning flights over Belarus in response to the forced grounding.

"What the West has done by introducing a ban on flights through Belarusian airspace for political reasons is completely irresponsible and endangers the safety of passengers," Foreign Ministry spokesman Maria Zakharova wrote on Facebook.

Montreal-based ICAO wields clout through its safety and security standards, which are approved by its 192 member states.

"We wish to remind those who demanded we take punitive action against that country that our agency was never assigned that type of role or capability," ICAO tweeted on Wednesday.

Belarus told the meeting that the airliner had not been forced down by the authorities, and that the pilot could have landed in Lithuania, said a source familiar with what happened. The source requested anonymity, given the sensitivity of the situation.

Under the Chicago Convention, each country has sovereignty over its own airspace, but the treaty prohibits any use of civil aviation that may endanger safety.

A separate 1971 Montreal treaty, to which Belarus is also a party, outlaws the seizure of aircraft or knowingly communicating false information in a way that endangers aircraft safety.

REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 29, 2021, with the headline 'UN aviation agency to probe grounding of plane by Belarus'. Subscribe