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Belarus: Lukashenko slams response to forced plane diversion

May 26, 2021

The Belarusian leader said "ill-wishers" are "trying to strangle Belarus" in his first speech since a commercial flight was intercepted and a critical blogger arrested.

Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko speaks during his meeting with parliamentarians
Lukashenko accused Western powers of crossing "red lines of common sense and human morality"Image: Maxim Guchek/BELTA/AFP via Getty Images

Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko hit out at Western powers on Wednesday, saying that his country's "ill-wishers" are "trying to strangle Belarus."

It's the first time Lukashenko has spoken in public since a Ryanair plane was diverted over the weekend and dissident blogger Raman Pratasevich and law student Sofia Sapega were taken into custody.

What did Lukashenko say?

In his speech, Lukashenko said that "attacks" on Belarus have crossed "red lines."

"As we predicted, our ill-wishers at home and abroad have changed their methods of attacking the state. They have crossed many red lines and crossed boundaries of common sense and human morality," Lukashenko said as he addressed members of parliament, the Belta state-run news agency reported.

He also said that a bomb threat, which Belarusian authorities said was behind the plane's landing in Minsk, came from Switzerland, and that outside forces were waging "hybrid warfare" against the country.

Lukashenko additionally called it an "absolute lie" that a fighter jet forced the plane to land, and said Belarus had acted "lawfully, to protect people."

"I acted lawfully to protect our people," he said, also accusing Pratasevich of being a "terrorist" who was planning to start a "bloody rebellion."

Responding to the Belarusian leader's comments, the Swiss government said that it had no knowledge of any bomb threat on the diverted Ryanair flight.

"Therefore, there have been no announcements from the Swiss authorities to the Belarusian authorities on this matter," a statement from the Foreign Ministry said. 

Six UN Security Council members call for probe

Six members of the UN Security Council late Wednesday condemned Belarus' interception of the Ryanair flight as a "a blatant attack on international civilian aviation safety and European security."

Estonia, France, Ireland, Norway, Britain and the United States issued a statement, saying the incident "constitutes a new and extremely dangerous phase in the Belarusian authorities' campaign of repression against its own people."

The six members also called for an investigation by the International Civil Aviation Organization and the release of Pratasevich.

A joint statement backed by all 15 members of the Security Council failed mainly due to opposition from veto-power Russia, a key Belarus ally.

What happened with the flight?

On Sunday, Belarusian authorities forced a Ryanair plane to land as it was flying to Lithuanian capital, Vilnius.

Upon landing in Minsk, authorities and took blogger Raman Pratasevich and his girlfriend, Sofia Sapega, into custody.

Prior to his arrest, Pratasevich — a vocal critic of Lukashenko — was traveling from Greece to Lithuania.

The flight path of Ryanair flight 4978
The flight path of the Ryanair plane, showing it being diverted on Sunday shortly before reaching its destination in Lithuania

Minsk ordered the commercial plane flying over its airspace to land, claiming a bomb was onboard — an explanation German Chancellor Angela Merkel has called "completely implausible."

The EU responded by slapping sanctions on Belarus, including a ban on Belarusian airlines using EU airspace or airports.

Germany and other Western governments have also condemned a confession broadcast Monday on Belarus state TV that showed Pratasevich admitting to organizing anti-government demonstrations. Belarusian opposition figures said it was clear from the footage that the dissident blogger had been tortured. A similar confession from Sapega was shown on state TV late Tuesday.

"We condemn in the strongest possible terms the Belarusian rulers' practice of parading their prisoners in public with so-called 'confessions'," German government spokesman Steffen Seibert told a news conference.

EU airlines urged to keep away from Belarus

Following Lukashenko's comments on Wednesday, the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) said it was advising EU airlines, as well as non-EU carriers flying to or from the bloc, to avoid airspace above Belarus

"The circumstances surrounding this action cast serious doubts on the respect shown by Belarus for international civil aviation rules," the EASA said in a safety bulletin.

"The actions undertaken by Belarus amounted to an increased safety risk for the [Ryanair] flight and put into question the ability of Belarus to provide safe air navigation services."

NATO also condemned Belarus' actions, saying it supported measures taken by the military alliance's allies in response to the incident.

"This unacceptable act seriously violated the norms governing civil aviation and endangered the lives of the passengers and crew. We support calls for an urgent independent investigation," a NATO statement said. 

"The detention of Mr. Pratasevich is an affront to the principles of political dissent and freedom of the press ... NATO Allies call on Belarus to respect fundamental human rights and freedoms, and to abide by the rules-based international order."

EU sanctions don't go far enough, activist says

Andrei Sannikov, a human rights activist and former presidential candidate, urged the EU to bring in tough and wide-sweeping economic sanctions against Belarus to force Lukashenko to rethink his polices.

"Forget about personal sanctions, targeted sanctions or visa bans because Belarus is not Russia," Sannikov said in an interview with DW. "It is quite effective for Russian oligarchs and others who have their assets in Europe. It's not effective for Belarus."

Opposition announces new protests

Meanwhile, the Belarusian opposition is preparing to stage a new phase of active anti-government protests in Belarus, exiled opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya said.

Mass protests erupted against longtime-leader Lukashenko last summer after he declared victory in a presidential election that his opponents said was rigged. The protests slowed down after a sweeping and brutal crackdown implemented by authorities. 

"There's nothing more to wait for, we have to stop the terror once and for all," Tsikhanouskaya said in a statement on social media.

nm,lc/rs (AFP, Reuters)