U.S. bans ticket sales for passenger flights to Belarus

A Ryanair aircraft, which was carrying Belarusian opposition blogger and activist Roman Protasevich and diverted to Belarus, where authorities detained him, lands at Vilnius Airport in Vilnius, Lithuania May 23, 2021. REUTERS/Andrius Sytas

WASHINGTON, June 29 (Reuters) - The United States on Tuesday banned ticket sales for air travel to and from Belarus, acting after Minsk forced a Ryanair flight to land and arrested a dissident journalist aboard.

The order is Washington's latest response to Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko's harsh crackdown against months of pro-democracy protests over his alleged rigging of an August 2020 election. The longtime ruler denies election fraud.

The United States and the European Union have refused to recognize his victory and imposed sanctions against top Belarusian officials and other targets.

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In issuing the ban, the U.S. Transportation Department said the State Department had determined that limiting travel between the United States and Belarus was in Washington's foreign policy interest following the diversion of the Ryanair flight.

The order still would permit "the operation of any transportation deemed to be in the national interest of the United States, including on humanitarian or national security grounds," according to the text.

It said the order would extend to "interline" travel in which tickets are purchased through one airline that contain flights operated by multiple airlines.

The directive - under consideration for several weeks - is mostly symbolic since relatively few tickets are purchased for travel to Belarus from U.S.-based travel services.

It is open for public comment until July 1.

After the May 23 forced landing of the Ryanair flight en route from Athens to Vilnius, the U.S. government advised passenger airlines to use extreme caution when flying over Belarus. At the time, the United States stopped short of imposing any restrictions.

The "Notice to Airmen" does not apply to cargo carriers such as United Parcel Service (UPS.N) and Fedex Corp (FDX.N) that fly over Belarus.

United Airlines (UAL.O) flies a route to India that sometimes is routed near Belarus, but no other U.S. passenger carrier typically flies through the former Soviet republic's airspace.

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Reporting by David Shepardson and Jonathan Landay; Writing by Tim Ahmann; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Howard Goller

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