MINSK, Belarus: A defiant President Alexander Lukashenko yesterday defended Belarus’s diversion of a European flight and arrest of a dissident on board, lashing out at critics at home and abroad. In his first public statement since the Ryanair flight was diverted and opposition journalist Roman Protasevich arrested on Sunday, Lukashenko dismissed the international outcry the incident provoked.
“I acted lawfully to protect our people,” Lukashenko said in an address to parliament, the Belta state-run news agency reported. The criticism was nothing more than another attempt by his opponents to undermine his rule, he said. “Our ill-wishers at home and abroad have changed their methods of attacking the state,” Lukashenko said. “They have crossed many red lines and crossed boundaries of common sense and human morality.” Lukashenko-often dubbed “Europe’s last dictator”-is facing some of the strongest international pressure of his 26-year rule of ex-Soviet Belarus.
The strongman and his allies are already under a series of Western sanctions over a brutal crackdown on mass protests that followed his disputed re-election to a sixth term last August. European leaders are now accusing authorities in Minsk of essentially hijacking the passenger flight, and they agreed this week to cut air links with Belarus and told airliners to avoid the country’s airspace.
The Belarusian opposition has called for further and stronger measures, and the UN Security Council was set to meet behind closed doors later. The Athens-to-Vilnius flight was diverted over a supposed bomb scare, with Lukashenko scrambling a MiG-29 fighter jet to accompany the aircraft. Belarus has released a transcript of communications between Minsk air traffic control and the Ryanair flight, in which the crew was told “you have a bomb on board” and urged to land in Minsk.
Lukashenko yesterday denied that the fighter jet had forced the airliner to land, calling such claims an “absolute lie”. Protasevich-the 26-year-old co-founder of opposition Telegram channel Nexta-and his Russian girlfriend Sofia Sapega were arrested after the plane landed.
Protasevich, who had been living between Poland and Lithuania, appeared in a video on Monday in which he confessed to helping to organize mass unrest, a charge that could land him in jail for 15 years. Sapega, a 23-year-old law student at the European Humanities University (EHU) in Lithuania, appeared in another video on Tuesday, saying she worked for a Telegram channel that disclosed information about Belarusian police. – AFP