Home >News >World >Belarus president defends plane diversion, defying pressure from West

Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko defended his handling of the diversion of a Ryanair flight over the weekend and accused Western leaders of trying to interfere in the country’s affairs, charging that they had crossed red lines in their attacks on the former Soviet state.

The Belarusian leader said his country was justified in asking the plane to land, heeding reports that there were explosives on board, and in doing so had averted a tragedy. He said he had acted legally to protect people’s lives.

“We responded adequately to the information received," Mr. Lukashenko said in a speech to parliamentarians on Wednesday, his first comments since the Sunday incident. “How would the United States react in such a situation in view of their sad experience?"

European Union and U.S. leaders were swift to condemn the forced landing of the plane, which was carrying dissident journalist Roman Protasevich, who was later arrested, and on Monday they agreed to impose a new round of sanctions on Belarus and ban its airlines from entering the bloc’s airspace and airports.

Western leaders have demanded the release of Mr. Protasevich, who became one of the lead actors behind a wave of antigovernment protests last year in the wake of Belarus’s August presidential election. Mr. Lukashenko claimed to have won in a landslide, but Western officials said the vote was neither free nor fair. Opponents have been demanding the resignation of the Belarusian leader, who has been in power since 1994.

“As we predicted, our ill-wishers from outside and inside the country have changed the methods of attacking the state," Mr. Lukashenko said. “They crossed the boundaries of common sense and human morality."

He added, “No sooner had the plane landed in Minsk, carbon-copy accusations from the West and flight bans started pouring in."

Belarusian authorities in November put Mr. Protasevich on a list of people involved in terrorist activities. They also started several criminal cases against him for organizing illegal protests and disrupting social order. Mr. Protasevich has said he regards the allegations as political repression. But the day after he was detained in Minsk, a video circulated on various Belarusian social-media accounts, including the opposition’s, showed him saying he was in a pretrial detention facility in the Belarusian capital and confessing to organizing mass riots.

His supporters and parents said they believe his comments were coerced.

The plane’s grounding has raised questions over legality. U.K. Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab condemned the move as “a shocking assault on civil aviation and an assault on international law," which “represents a danger to civilian flights everywhere."

Mr. Lukashenko said, “The state that will not succumb to hybrid pressure can survive. I appeal to the entire world community: There is no point in shaking Belarus."

Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who lives in exile in Lithuania, said on Wednesday that a new phase of active antigovernment protests are being prepared.

“There is nothing more to wait for—terror must be stopped once and for all," she said in a statement.

Mr. Lukashenko’s comments regarding the flight diversion came a day after Belarusian aviation authorities released a transcript indicating that the Ryanair pilot repeatedly questioned air-traffic controllers about their request to reroute the plane to Minsk. The back-and-forth between the cockpit and ground control suggested the pilots sought clarity on diverting to Minsk, since the plane was already nearing the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius, its final destination.

Mr. Lukashenko said that the Ryanair crew consulted with the owners of the plane and the airport in Vilnius, but decided to land in Minsk.

A spokeswoman for Lithuania’s air-traffic control agency, Oro Navigacija, said on Tuesday that the crew did not contact the agency. It is unclear from the transcript that Belarus released whether the crew was able to communicate with Ryanair.

The airline declined to comment on Mr. Lukashenko’s remarks.

The Belarusian leader said that a jet fighter dispatched by the Belarus air force wasn’t meant to intimidate the crew.

“Forcing the liner to land by a MiG-29 fighter is an absolute lie," Mr. Lukashenko said. “The task of the fighter is to provide communication and take out a passenger plane for landing in case of a critical situation."

Mr. Lukashenko also said that the purported warning about a bomb on the plane, which was flying from Athens, came from Switzerland.

Switzerland’s Federal Department of Foreign Affairs said that Swiss authorities had no knowledge of a bomb threat on the flight and have not been in touch with Belarus on the matter.

Belarus had earlier said it had received correspondence from Hamas, the militant group that governs the Gaza Strip, that a bomb on board was set to detonate over Vilnius. Hamas hasn’t responded to requests for comment.

“Hamas or no Hamas—it doesn’t matter today," Mr. Lukashenko said. “I acted legally, protecting people, in accordance with all international rules."

This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text.

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