On Sunday, flight controllers from the ex-Soviet nation ordered a Ryanair plane flying over the country to land because of a reported bomb threat, and a fighter jet was scrambled to escort it to Minsk, just before it was to land in Vilnius, Lithuania.
Once the plane landed, Belarusian security agents arrested Roman Protasevich, a 26-year-old journalist and activist, they also arrested his Russian girlfriend.
President Alexander Lukashenko said a claim that the fighter jet forced the Ryanair plane to land was an “absolute lie” and defended the diversion of the flight as a necessary response to a bomb threat.
“I acted in a lawful way, protecting people in line with international rules,” said Lukashenko, who has ruled the ex-Soviet nation with an iron fist for more than a quarter of a century, relentlessly stifling dissent.
Outraged EU leaders quickly agreed to ban Belarusian airlines from using the air space and airports of the 27-nation bloc, urged European airlines to avoid Belarusian air space and imposed sanctions on officials linked to the diversion.
They said the bloc will introduce more sanctions targeting businesses that are the main cash earners for Lukashenko’s regime.
On Tuesday, UK transport secretary Grant Schapps said Belarusian airlines will be banned from entering British airspace.
Speaking before legislators and senior officials in Minsk, Lukashenko said: “Our ill-wishers outside and inside the country have changed their methods of attacking the state. That’s why they switched from organising riots to trying to strangle us.”
Lukashenko has faced unprecedented pressure at home with months of protests triggered by his re-election to a sixth term in an August 2020 vote that the opposition rejected as rigged.
But he has only intensified repression, and more than 35,000 people have been arrested since the protests began, with thousands beaten.
“They crossed numerous red lines, and also limits of reason and morale,” Lukashenko said. “It’s no longer just an information war, it’s a modern hybrid war and we need to do everything to prevent it from spilling into a hot conflict.”
He said Belarus will retaliate by weakening its border controls halting Western-bound illegal migration and drug trafficking.
“We were stopping migrants and drugs — now you will catch them and eat them yourself,” he said.
Protasevich, who left Belarus in 2019, has become a leading critic of Lukashenko with a popular messaging app he ran playing a key role in helping organise the huge protests.
In a video released by Belarusian authorities on Monday, Roman Protasevich said he was in good health.
After his detention, the 26-year old was seen in a brief video clip on Belarusian state television late on Monday, speaking rapidly to say he was confessing to some of the charges against him.
He had been charged in absentia with staging mass riots and fanning social hatred. The charges carry a prison sentence of up to 15 years, and some fear Protasevich could face more serious charges, including some that carry the death penalty.