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UPDATE 3-U.N. aviation body to probe Belarus plane grounding, say Ireland and Lithuania

(Adds details, Lithuanian transport minister, background)

OTTAWA, May 27 (Reuters) - The United Nations’ International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) agreed on Thursday to probe the forced grounding of a Ryanair passenger plane in Minsk, said Ireland and Lithuania.

ICAO’s 36-nation governing council acted after the United States and several allies demanded an investigation into the incident, which prompted international outrage and triggered calls for sanctions against Belarus.

“We fully support ICAO’s decision to carry out a transparent and independent investigation into the incident in Belarus and welcome the support of our international colleagues,” Irish Transport Minister Eamon Ryan said in a statement.

ICAO would produce an interim report by June 25, he added. The council has limited powers of investigation.

Belarus scrambled a fighter and used a false bomb alert to divert the Irish airliner to Minsk and detain a dissident Belarusian journalist. The plane, traveling from Athens to 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 traveled between two EU capitals,” said Ryan.

Minsk rejected charges it acted illegally and accused the West of using the episode to wage “hybrid war” against it.

Lithuanian transport minister Marius Skuodis called the probe good news. During the meeting, close Belarus ally Russia stated that the detention of passengers was not part of ICAO’s mandate, Skuodis said on his Facebook page.

Montreal-based ICAO cannot impose binding rules on governments but 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 the airliner had not been forced down by 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.

Skuodis said he had asked why passengers on board the plane had not been evacuated after landing, which is the normal practice for bomb scares.

Ryan earlier said Dublin wanted ICAO to use Article 55e of its Convention, which allows an investigation into avoidable obstacles to the development of international navigation. (Additional reporting by Tim Hepher in Paris, Andrius Sytas in Vilnius and Tracy Rucinski in Chicago; Editing by Bill Berkrot, Mark Potter and Pravin Char)

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