MOSCOW (REUTERS) – Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko said on Wednesday (May 26) that a journalist pulled off a plane that landed in Minsk had been plotting a bloody rebellion, and accused the West of waging a hybrid war against him.
In his first public remarks since he ordered a warplane to intercept a Ryanair flight between European Union members Greece and Lithuania, he showed no hint of backing down from confrontation with countries that accuse him of air piracy.
“As we predicted, our ill-wishers from outside the country and from inside the country changed their methods of attack on the state,” Mr Lukashenko, 66, told Parliament. “They have crossed many red lines and have abandoned common sense and human morals.”
Belarus has already been subject to EU and United States sanctions since Mr Lukashenko cracked down on pro-democracy protests after a disputed election last year. But his decision to intercept an international airliner flying through his country’s air space and arrest a 26-year-old dissident journalist has brought a new level of condemnation and vows of far more serious action.
The journalist, Mr Roman Protasevich, whose social media feed from exile had been one of the last remaining independent sources of news about Belarus, was shown on state TV on Monday (May 24) confessing to organising demonstrations. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson called the footage “distressing” and Belarus opposition figures said that it was proof he had been tortured.
Late on Tuesday, state TV broadcast a similar confession video of Ms Sophia Sapega, a 23-year-old student arrested with Mr Protasevich.
Belarus denies it mistreats detainees. Rights groups have documented what they say are hundreds of cases of abuse and forced confessions since last year.
Europe’s aviation regulator issued a bulletin on Wednesday urging all airlines to avoid Belarus airspace for safety reasons, saying the forced diversion of the Ryanair flight had put in question its ability to provide safe skies.
“The circumstances surrounding this action cast serious doubts on the respect shown by Belarus for international civil aviation rules,” the European Union Aviation Safety Agency said.
Western governments have told their airlines to re-route flights to avoid Belarus’ airspace and have announced plans to ban Belarusian planes. The EU says other unspecified sanctions are also in the works.
Mr Lukashenko promised to respond harshly to any sanctions. His prime minister said the country could ban some imports and restrict transit in response, without giving details.
Landlocked Belarus is located between its ally Russia and the EU. Some Russian oil and gas flows through it. Last year, it retaliated for sanctions by limiting some oil export traffic through a port in EU-member Lithuania.
In his remarks to Parliament, Mr Lukashenko said street protests were no longer possible in Belarus, perhaps signalling a further crackdown on opponents. Most known opposition figures are now in jail or exile.
In power since 1994, Mr Lukashenko faced mass protests throughout the second half of last year after he was declared the winner of a presidential election that his opponents said was rigged. The protests finally lost momentum after a months-long crackdown during which thousands of people were arrested.
Exiled opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya said on Wednesday the opposition was preparing a new phase of active anti-government protests.
“There’s nothing more to wait for – we have to stop the terror once and for all,” Ms Tsikhanouskaya said in a statement on social media.
Attempts to isolate Belarus
The US and European leaders are seeking ways to increase the isolation of Mr Lukashenko, who has shrugged off previous rounds of Western sanctions, which mostly consist of placing officials on black lists. The West is also wary of upsetting Moscow, which regards Belarus as a strategically important buffer.
The White House said US President Joe Biden would discuss the incident with Russian President Vladimir Putin at a summit next month. It added that Washington did not believe Moscow had played any role in the incident.
The Belarusian authorities on Tuesday released a transcript of a conversation between the Ryanair plane and an air traffic controller. In it, the controller tells the pilot of a bomb threat and advises him to land in Minsk. The pilot repeatedly questions the source of the information before ultimately agreeing to declare an emergency and divert the plane.
The transcript, which Reuters could not independently verify, differed from excerpts previously released by Belarus state TV, which had reported that the pilot had asked to land in Minsk, rather than that the controller had advised him to do so.