Belarus leader slams critics for 'crossing red lines'

He accuses West of waging hybrid war, alleges journalist in diverted plane plotted 'rebellion'

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko speaking to parliamentarians, members of the Constitutional Commission and representatives of government bodies, at the Parliament in Minsk yesterday. He said "ill-wishers" accusing him of air piracy have "cr
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko speaking to parliamentarians, members of the Constitutional Commission and representatives of government bodies, at the Parliament in Minsk yesterday. He said "ill-wishers" accusing him of air piracy have "crossed many red lines".PHOTO: EPA-EFE
Ms Sophia Sapega, seen here in an undated photo taken in 2019, was arrested in Belarus along with her boyfriend, Mr Roman Protasevich.
Ms Sophia Sapega, seen here in an undated photo taken in 2019, was arrested in Belarus along with her boyfriend, Mr Roman Protasevich.PHOTO: REUTERS

MOSCOW • Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko said a journalist pulled off a plane forced to land in Minsk had been plotting a bloody rebellion, and accused the West of waging a hybrid war against him.

In his first public remarks yesterday since he ordered a warplane to intercept a Ryanair flight between European Union members Greece and Lithuania, Mr Lukashenko showed no hint of backing down from confrontation with countries accusing him of air piracy.

"As we predicted, our ill-wishers from outside the country and from inside the country changed their methods of attack on the state," the 66-year-old told Parliament. "They have crossed many red lines and abandoned common sense and human morals."

Belarus has already been subject to EU and United States sanctions since Mr Lukashenko cracked down on pro-democracy protests after a disputed election last year. But his decision to intercept an international airliner flying through his country's airspace and arrest a 26-year-old dissident journalist has brought new levels of condemnation and vows of serious action.

The journalist, Mr Roman Protasevich, whose social media feed from exile was one of the last independent sources of news about Belarus, was shown on state TV on Monday confessing to organising demonstrations. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson called the footage "distressing" and Belarus opposition figures said that it was proof he had been tortured.

Late on Tuesday, state TV broadcast a similar confession video of Ms Sophia Sapega, a 23-year-old student arrested with Mr Protasevich. Speaking fast and looking uncomfortable, Ms Sapega, a Russian citizen and Mr Protasevich's girlfriend, said she was an editor of a Telegram channel that publicised the personal data of Belarusian law enforcement personnel, a crime in Belarus.

Ms Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, leader of the Belarusian opposition that operates from nearby Lithuania, said on Twitter Ms Sapega appeared to be under duress.

Belarus denies it mistreats detainees. Rights groups have documented what they say are hundreds of cases of abuse and forced confessions since last year.

FLIGHTS REROUTED

Europe's aviation regulator issued a bulletin yesterday urging all airlines to avoid Belarus airspace for safety reasons, saying the forced diversion of the Ryanair flight had put in question its ability to provide safe skies.

"The circumstances surrounding this action cast serious doubts on the respect shown by Belarus for international civil aviation rules," the European Union Aviation Safety Agency said.

Western governments told their airlines to reroute flights to avoid Belarus' airspace and announced plans to ban Belarusian planes.

Mr Lukashenko promised to respond harshly to any sanctions. His prime minister said the country could ban some imports and restrict transit in response, without giving details.

Landlocked Belarus is located between its ally Russia and the EU. Some Russian oil and gas flow through it. Last year, it retaliated for sanctions by limiting some oil export traffic through a port in Lithuania.

The US and European leaders are seeking ways to increase the isolation of Mr Lukashenko, who has shrugged off previous rounds of Western sanctions, which mostly consist of placing officials on blacklists. The West is also wary of upsetting Moscow, which regards Belarus as a key strategic buffer.

The Kremlin said yesterday there was no reason to doubt statements made by Mr Lukashenko, adding that talks between him and Russian President Vladimir Putin were scheduled for tomorrow in Sochi.

The Belarus strongman has claimed the flight on Sunday was ordered to be grounded following a bomb threat sent from Switzerland.

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 27, 2021, with the headline 'Belarus leader slams critics for 'crossing red lines''. Subscribe