Updated at 16:37,18-06-2021

Belarus president calls backlash against plane incident a ‘planned provocation’

Andrew Roth in Moscow and agencies, The Guardian

Belarus president calls backlash against plane incident a ‘planned provocation’
Alexander Lukashenko has made his first public remarks defending his grounding of a Ryanair flight last week, accusing the west of launching a “hybrid modern war” against Minsk and calling the backlash over the incident a “planned provocation”.

Addressing a session of parliament, Lukashenko also appeared to suggest the plane could have been shot down because it was flying over a nuclear power plant when it was diverted by the Belarusian government, which appeared to have concocted a bomb threat and scrambled a Mig-29 to ensure the plane landed.

European countries began to block flights from Minsk on Wednesday following a decision by the European Commission to enact restrictions on the Belarusian national carrier Belavia. A Belavia flight bound for Barcelona turned around at the Polish border and circled more than ten times before returning to Minsk.

“We’ll fly over neutral territories, the Mediterranean Sea,” said Lukashenko during a speech. “But we will not get on our knees and we will not justify ourselves because there’s no reason to.”

Lukashenko has appeared unrepentant over the arrest of the Belarusian journalist Raman Pratasevich and his girlfriend, Sofia Sapega, despite the threat of sanctions from the west over what has been called “air piracy” and an “act of state terrorism”.

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the Belarusian opposition leader, told the European parliament on Wednesday that Lukashenko was “turning the country into the North Korea of Europe: non-transparent, unpredictable and dangerous”.

Tsikhanouskaya, who challenged the Belarusian leader in last year’s presidential elections before being forced to flee the country, said Lukashenko had “crossed the line and become a threat to international peace and security”.

In a speech given over video link, Tsikhanouskaya called for concrete sanctions and punishments against the Belarusian regime, including a ban on foreign investments and embargos on Belarusian exports such as oil and metal products and potash fertilisers.

She also called on Europe to increase its support for the Belarusian opposition and civil society and to “publicly maintain a non-recognition policy of the regime”.

Tsikhanouskaya called for European officials to put greater pressure on Minsk. “The current EU approach towards Belarus does not work. It has not changed the behaviour of Lukashenko who just has a growing sense of impunity,” she said. “You must address the situation in its entirety or you will face similar incidents.”

Filmed confessions by Pratasevich and his girlfriend were clearly given under duress, family members have said.

On Tuesday evening, Sapega appeared in what supporters have compared to a hostage video, confessing to running an anti-government Telegram account that could threaten her with more than a decade in prison.

In the video, released via pro-state Belarusian media on Tuesday evening, Sapega, 23, gave an apparently memorised confession in which she admitted to running the Black Book of Belarus, which revealed personal details or “doxed” Belarusian riot police in an effort to “name and shame” them.

“I’m also the editor of the Telegram channel Black Book of Belarus that publishes personal information about employees of the interior ministry,” she said. The video was later leaked to pro-state media.

The channel, which opposition leaders have said was an effective means to combat police brutality against protesters last year, has angered the government of Lukashenko and led to embarrassing scenes of police officers running from protesters to avoid having their masks torn off.

Pratasevich helped run the popular Telegram account during the mass protests against Lukashenko. He has been accused of extremism and calls to incite mass riots.

Sapega, a Russian citizen, was not known to have played any role in the Belarusian protests and her mother said that her daughter had “simply showed up in the wrong place at the wrong time”. Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya said that Sapega was under “psychological pressure”.

Hundreds of supporters also attended the funeral on Wednesday of Vitold Ashurak, a Belarusian activist who died in prison under suspicious circumstances while serving a five-year term for participating in anti-government protests. Footage published by the government showed Ashurak collapsing in his cell, apparently from weakness, shortly before he passed away. The official cause of death was a heart attack, although supporters have questioned those reports. Mourners held up two fingers in a victory sign as church bells rang over a square in Byarozawka in western Belarus.

Lukashenko’s comments to parliament on Wednesday were his first defending the grounding of the Ryanair flight. “Whether or not there was a bomb, if I was informed there was a terrorist on board the plane, I would immediately give the order to have the plane land,” said Lukashenko.

During the speech, he said a bomb threat had come from someone in Switzerland, omitting previous claims by his transport ministry that the threat had been sent by members of Hamas (a Hamas spokesperson has denied any connection to the incident).

He blamed the west for launching a “hybrid modern war” against Belarus, calling his country a “test range” for launching the west’s conflict with Russia.

“They’ve moved on from preparing revolts to suffocating us,” said Lukashenko, who has been in power since 1994. “They are looking for new weaknesses.”

Lukashenko’s remarks in part seemed aimed at ensuring greater backing from Russia, where the government has given measured support for his decision to ground the Ryanair flight but has also shown signs that it is exasperated with the Belarusian leader. If the EU launches tougher sanctions against Belarus, the country will probably request Russian support to prop up its economy.

A summit between Putin and Lukashenko was announced in Sochi for Friday where the two presidents are expected to discuss the incident. “President Lukashenko will certainly have an opportunity to inform the head of the Russian state about all circumstances and reasons of what happened in detail,” Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin spokesperson, told reporters on Tuesday.

Lukashenko has said that the meeting will mostly concern the economy.

Pratasevich’s parents have pleaded for international help to free the Belarusian journalist as the US president, Joe Biden, said sanctions against Lukashenko’s regime were “in play”, without revealing further details.

From their new home in Poland, Natalia Pratasevich, the journalist’s mother, told Agence France-Presse: “I’m asking, I’m begging, I’m calling on the whole international community to save him.”