The United States has formally banned air travel to Belarus in response to the diversion of a flight and subsequent arrest by the country’s regime in Minsk of an opposition journalist.
The Department of Transportation (DOT) issued a final order (pdf) on July 6 prohibiting U.S. and foreign air carriers from selling tickets to Belarus, with exceptions to be made for “any transportation deemed to be in the national interest of the United States, including on humanitarian or national security grounds.”
A copy of the notice was sent to the Embassy of Belarus in Washington. The embassy didn’t respond to a request for comment by press time.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken asked Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg on June 28 to ban air travel to Belarus. The DOT offered two business days for public comment on the ban and didn’t receive any responses in opposition to the request.
Airlines appeared to be in compliance with the order as of 10:49 p.m. EDT on July 6, except for flights operated by Turkish Airlines, according to Kayak.com.
The Biden administration reimposed sanctions on Belarus on June 3, in response to the arrest of Raman Pratasevich, a 26-year-old activist, journalist, and prominent critic of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko.
On May 23, Belarusian flight controllers told the crew of a Ryanair flight that there was a bomb threat against the plane as it was crossing through Belarus airspace and ordered it to land. A Belarusian MiG-29 fighter jet was scrambled to escort the plane. After the forced landing, Belarus authorities then arrested Pratasevich and his girlfriend.
The Department of Justice and the FBI are investigating the plane diversion, according to the White House.
“We call on Lukashenko to allow a credible international investigation into the events of May 23, immediately release all political prisoners, and enter into a comprehensive and genuine political dialogue with the leaders of the democratic opposition and civil society groups that leads to the conduct of free and fair presidential elections under OSCE auspices and monitoring,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said in a statement in late May.
Lukashenko’s disputed landslide election victory last year triggered mass protests by many who believed the election had been rigged.
Lukashenko has ruled Belarus with an iron grip for decades, with policies mirroring his communist roots. A former director of a collective farm and a former member of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Lukashenko had backed state ownership of key industries before ascending to leadership. He was the only member of the Belarusian Parliament to vote against the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.