The United States, Canada and Britain have imposed new sanctions on Belarus as its veteran leader, Alexander Lukashenko, said the West risked provoking a "third world war" by putting pressure on his autocratic regime and its main ally, Russia.
A year after rigged presidential elections sparked huge opposition protests and a brutal regime crackdown, Belarus’s leader of 27 years claimed on Monday that he won the vote fairly, that no one was beaten or tortured by his security forces and that his critics were coup plotters and puppets of a hostile West.
US president Joe Biden said "we are issuing a new executive order that enhances our ability to impose costs on the regime and announcing new sanctions against Belarusian individuals and entities for their role in attacks on democracy and human rights, transnational repression, and corruption."
Britain announced sanctions on Belarusian potash and petroleum products, which are important export earners for the country, and measures to prevent Belarusian airliners overflying or landing at UK airports and to ensure that planes linked directly to the Minsk regime do not receive British technical assistance.
"The Lukashenko regime continues to crush democracy and violate human rights in Belarus. These sanctions demonstrate that the UK will not accept Lukashenko's actions since the fraudulent election," said foreign secretary Dominic Raab.
“The products of Lukashenko’s state-owned industries will not be sold in the UK, and our aerospace companies will not touch his fleet of luxury aircraft,” he added.
Canada also announced sanctions on Belarusian petroleum and potash products and joined Britain in introducing financial measures that could make it harder for Minsk to borrow money on world markets.
The co-ordinated moves came one year after a vote that Mr Lukashenko claimed to have won with 80 per cent support, but which his Belarusian opponents and western capitals say was blatantly rigged.
Hundreds of thousands of Belarusians rallied in protest, and police responded with a wave of violent repression in which several people died, hundreds were injured and more than 35,000 detained. Many leading opposition figures fled the country, independent NGOs and media have been shut down, and rights groups say more than 600 political prisoners are now in jail.
“Feel free to enforce sanctions. We will see where they lead,” Mr Lukashenko said during a press conference on Monday, describing Britain as a US “lapdog” that he hoped would “choke on these sanctions”.
“You will unleash a third world war. Are you pushing us and the Russians towards it? Do you want to win this war? There will be no winners. And if there are, it won’t be you. Let’s sit at the negotiating table and start talking about how to get out of this situation.”
Mr Lukashenko also denied that Belarus played any role in the death of opposition activist Vitaly Shishov in Ukraine last week, and said Olympic sprinter Krystsina Tsimanouskaya had been "manipulated" by the West into refusing to return to her homeland and seeking protection in Poland.
Exiled opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya said Belarusians "remain steadfast in their demands: the crisis will be resolved when we release all political prisoners and hold a new democratic presidential election".