Alexander Lukashenko has accused the West of launching a “planned provocation” that said it forced Belarus to intercept a Ryanair flight carrying a major dissident over the weekend.
In his first comments since sending a fighter jet to escort the Lithuanian-linked plane to Minsk, the Belarusian president told parliament he had “acted legally, protecting people under all international law.” .
He defended the country’s arrest of dissident blogger Roman Protasevich, whom opposition leaders and Western governments said was the real reason for the forced landing, as the country’s “sovereign right”.
Speaking Wednesday, Lukashenko said Minsk’s air traffic control had transmitted a warning of a bomb threat it had received from Switzerland. Belarusian officials said the threat came from the Palestinian militant group Hamas, which refused any participation, through the Swiss-based encrypted e-mail service ProtonMail.
Lukashenko said Ryanair pilots had made their decision to land the plane, en route from Athens, to Minsk, despite being much closer to its destination, the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius, at the time.
The former head of the collective operation, which has ruled Belarus with an iron fist for 27 years, denied claims by Ryanair passengers who had been held at gunpoint in Minsk and said the crew “was at the phone with someone for seven hours and he didn’t want to fly out. ”
He said Athens and Vilnius airports had also received the bomb threat and had refused to let the plane land in Vilnius.
Lukashenko also suggested that Belarusian critics should be happy not to have ordered the downing of the plane while it was flying near a nuclear power plant, where it said it had given the order to “immediately assume full force.” battle “.
“Hamas or not, it means nothing,” he said. “Wasn’t Chernobyl enough?” [ . . . ] If there was a bomb on board the plane and the terrorists wanted to blow it up, we wouldn’t have been able to really help it. But I couldn’t let the plane crash into the heads of our people. “
EU nations have condemned the crash of the Ryanair flight and have agreed to intensify sanctions against Belarus, ban its airline from blocking airports and prevent European airlines from flying over the country.
Western leaders have demanded the immediate release of Protasevich and his friend Sofia Sapega, who was also on the flight. The couple were arrested shortly after the plane landed in Minsk, and were recorded in prison confessing to “organizing mass riots.”
Belarus has put Protasevich and the co-founder of Nexta, the Polish-based dissident media group where the 26-year-old blogger was first editor, on a terrorist watch list in November.
Lukashenko did not mention the couple by name, but referred to Protasevich as “extremist” and said he and Sapega planned to “start a massacre and a bloody revolt.”
Nexta, which at its peak had 2.17m subscribers to the Telegram messaging app in a nation of just 9.5m, played a leading role in the coverage and, at times, in the direction of huge protests against it. to Lukashenko’s disputed election victory last summer.
Lukashenko implied that Nexta was directed by Western intelligence to destabilize Belarus as a testing ground for future attacks on its ally, Russia.
“I want to remind you that a well-known channel that has started to cover Belarusian issues, but not on our land, is already working hard against Russia, thus showing the true purpose of Western strategists,” he said.
“Their goal is to dissolve the Belarusian people and stop suffocating their archimandrite: the Russians.”