© Reuters. Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko gives a speech at a meeting with parliamentarians, members of the Constitutional Commission and representatives of the public administration in Minsk, Belarus, on May 26, 2021. Maxim Guchek / BelTA / Handout vi
By Tom Balmforth and Maria Kiselyova
MOSCOW (Reuters) – Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko said Wednesday that a journalist who dropped a plane that had to land in Minsk was planning a rebellion and he accused the West of waging a hybrid war against him.
In his first public statements since a Belarusian fighter jet intercepted a Ryanair flight between members of the European Union, Greece and Lithuania on Sunday, he showed no indication that he was withdrawing from confronting countries accusing him of air piracy.
“As we predicted, our infidels from outside the country and from within the country have changed their methods of attacking the state,” Lukashenko told parliament.
“You have crossed many red lines and given up common sense and human morals,” he said, referring to a “hybrid war” without giving details.
Belarus has been subject to EU and US sanctions since Lukashenko took action against pro-democracy protests after a controversial election last year. But his decision to intercept an international airliner in Belarusian airspace and arrest a 26-year-old dissident journalist earned much more serious vows.
In his speech to parliament, Lukashenko did not provide details of the “bloody rebellion” that he accused journalist Roman Protasevich of planning.
Protasevich, whose social media feed from exile was one of the last independent sources of news about Belarus, was featured on state television on Monday and confessed to organizing demonstrations.
But Belarusian opposition officials refused the confession and saw the video as evidence that Protasevich had been tortured, a claim repeated by his mother, Natalia.
“I’m just begging the whole international community … please, world, stand up and help, I beg you so much because they’re going to kill him,” she told Polish broadcaster TVN.
Late Tuesday, state television broadcast a similar video of confession of Sophia Sapega, a 23-year-old student who was arrested with Protasevich.
Germany led the condemnation of Belarus for the videotapes that Lukashenko’s opponents said were forcibly recorded.
“We strongly condemn the practice of the Belarusian rulers to show their prisoners in public with so-called” confessions “, said the German government spokesman Steffen Seibert.
Belarus denies mistreating detainees. Rights groups have documented what they say are hundreds of cases of abuse and forced confessions since last year.
The European Aviation Authority issued a bulletin on Wednesday calling on all airlines to avoid Belarusian airspace for safety reasons. The forced rerouting of the Ryanair flight called into question its ability to offer safe skies.
Western governments have advised their airlines to divert flights to bypass Belarusian airspace and have announced plans to ban Belarusian planes. The European Union says other unspecified sanctions are also in the works.
The rating agency S & P Global (NYSE 🙂 signaled that it could downgrade Belarus’ creditworthiness if Western governments impose stricter economic sanctions.
Lukashenko said he would respond harshly to sanctions. Its prime minister said the country could ban some imports and restrict transit in response, without giving details.
Landlocked Belarus lies between its ally Russia and the EU, and some of Russia’s oil and gas flows through it. Last year it stood up for sanctions by restricting some of the oil export traffic through a port in Lithuania.
In his remarks to parliament, 66-year-old Lukashenko said that street protests were no longer possible in Belarus. Most of the known opposition activists are currently in prison or in exile.
Lukashenko, who had been in power since 1994, faced weeks of mass protests after being declared the winner of a presidential election that his opponents said had been rigged. The protests lost momentum after thousands of arrests under police crackdown.
Exiled opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya said the opposition was now preparing a new phase of active protests.
“There is nothing left to wait – we have to stop terrorism once and for all,” she said.
TRY TO ISOLATE BELARUS
Western powers are looking for ways to increase the isolation of Lukashenko, who previously shook off Western sanctions, which consisted primarily of blacklisting officials. The West is cautious about angering Moscow, which sees Belarus as a strategically important buffer.
US President Joe Biden will hold a summit next month to discuss the incident with Russian President Vladimir Putin, but the White House said it doesn’t believe Moscow played a role in the incident.
The Belarusian authorities released a transcript of a conversation between the Ryanair plane and an air traffic controller on Tuesday. In it, the controller informs the pilot about the danger of a bomb and advises him to land in Minsk. The pilot repeatedly questions the source of information before agreeing to divert the aircraft.
The protocol, which Reuters could not independently verify, differed from the excerpts on Belarusian state television, which reported that the pilot had asked to land in Minsk instead of the air traffic controller advising him to do so.
The Ryanair plane will remain at the airport of the Lithuanian capital, where it flew to Minsk, while data is being collected from it, the Lithuanian prosecutor said.