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UPDATE 1-EU air traffic agency helping airlines that want to bypass Belarus

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BRUSSELS, May 24 (Reuters) - The European air traffic control agency Eurocontrol said on Monday it was working to help airlines bypass Belarusian airspace if they wish after Minsk forced a Ryanair plane to land on Sunday and then arrested a dissident journalist on board.

As EU leaders gathered to discuss air traffic restrictions on Belarus in response to the incident, during which Minsk scrambled a warplane to intercept the civilian flight, Eurocontrol said it was expecting 64 flights operated by the Belarusian carrier Belavia in its airspace on Monday.

Eurocontrol said it was “working with airlines and air navigation service providers in countries neighbouring Belarus to ensure sufficient capacity is available to ensure that airlines can avoid Belarus airspace if they wish to do so”.

The agency said three EU airlines - Germany’s Lufthansa, Poland’s LOT and Latvia’s airBaltic - operated 14 flights a week to Belarus.

“Due to the closure of the eastern part of Ukrainian airspace, a number of EU airlines use the airspace of Belarus on their flights to Asia,” Eurocontrol told Reuters.

The agency said around 2,500 flights using EU airspace took off from, landed in or overflew Belarus in the week to May 19, some 419 of them operated by Belavia.

The Belarusian carrier currently operates flights to or from 21 EU cities, from Helsinki to Larnaca in Cyprus, it added.

Eurocontrol said the so-called Chicago Convention - a core international aviation treaty created after World War Two - prohibited the use of weapons against civil aircraft in flight.

If such a plane is intercepted, “the lives of persons on board and the safety of aircraft must not be endangered”, the convention says. (Reporting by Gabriela Baczynska; Editing by Kevin Liffey and Alex Richardson)

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