Alexander Lukashenko has accused the west of staging a “planned provocation” that he claimed forced Belarus to intercept a Ryanair flight carrying a prominent dissident at the weekend.
In his first comments since he sent a fighter jet to escort the Lithuania- bound plane to Minsk, the Belarus president told parliament he had “acted legally, protecting people according to all international laws”.
He defended his country’s arrest of dissident blogger Roman Protasevich, which opposition leaders and western governments said was the real reason for the forced landing, as the country’s “sovereign right”.
Speaking on Wednesday, Lukashenko claimed Minsk air traffic control had passed on a warning of a bomb threat it received from Switzerland. Belarusian officials previously said the threat came from Palestinian militant group Hamas, which has denied any involvement, via the Switzerland-based encrypted email service ProtonMail.
Lukashenko said the Ryanair pilots had made their own decision to land the plane, en route from Athens, in Minsk, despite being much closer to its destination, the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius, at the time.
The former collective farm boss, who has ruled Belarus with an iron fist for 27 years, denied claims by Ryanair passengers that they had been held at gunpoint in Minsk and said the crew “was on the phone with someone for seven hours and didn’t want to fly out”.
He said Athens and Vilnius airports had also received the bomb threat and refused to let the plane land in Vilnius.
Lukashenko also suggested critics of Belarus should have been grateful he did not order the plane to be shot down as it flew close to a nuclear power plant, where he said he had given the order to “immediately assume full battle readiness”.
“Hamas or not, it doesn’t mean anything,” he said. “Was Chernobyl not enough? [ . . . ] If there was a bomb on board the plane and terrorists wanted to blow it up, we couldn’t really have helped. But I couldn’t let the plane fall on our people’s heads.”
EU nations condemned the downing of the Ryanair flight and agreed to step up sanctions against Belarus, ban its airline from the bloc’s airports, and stop European airlines from flying over the country.
Western leaders have called for the immediate release of Protasevich and his girlfriend Sofia Sapega, who was also on the flight. The couple were detained immediately after the plane landed in Minsk, and were recorded in jail confessing to “organising mass disturbances”.
Belarus placed Protasevich and the co-founder of Nexta, the Poland-based dissident media group where the 26-year-old blogger was previously editor, on a terrorist watchlist in November.
Lukashenko did not mention the couple by name, but referred to Protasevich as an “extremist” and said he and Sapega were planning to “start a slaughter and a bloody revolt”.
Nexta, which at its peak had 2.17m subscribers on messaging app Telegram in a nation of just 9.5m, played a leading role in covering and sometimes directing huge protests against Lukashenko’s disputed election victory last summer.
Lukashenko implied that Nexta was being directed by western intelligence to destabilise Belarus as a testing ground for future attacks on its ally, Russia.
“I’d like to remind you that one well-known channel that started out covering Belarusian issues, but not on our land, is already working full out against Russia, thus showing the true goal of western strategists,” he said.
“Their goal is to dissolve the Belarusian people and move on to smothering their arch-enemy: the Russian.”