Lukashenko says Ryanair flight row part of West’s ‘hybrid war’ with Belarus

Mother of journalist taken off plane begs world leaders to secure his freedom

Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko has accused the West of waging "hybrid war" against him and of using a row over the diversion of a Ryanair flight and the arrest of an activist on board as an excuse to "strangle" his nation with sanctions.

Mr Lukashenko said detained journalist and opposition campaigner Roman Protasevich had planned a "bloody revolt" in Belarus, as he made his first public defence of how a Ryanair plane en route from Greece to Lithuania was diverted to Minsk airport on Sunday escorted by a MiG-29 fighter jet.

The country's autocratic leader of 27 years addressed his parliament as Mr Protasevich's mother begged world leaders to secure his release, and Belarus's main opposition leader, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, accused Mr Lukashenko's increasingly isolated regime of turning the country into "a European North Korea".

In a typically fiery and rambling speech, the former Soviet state farm boss said Belarus had acted impeccably and followed all international rules after Minsk supposedly became aware of a bomb threat against the airliner.

"The message that there was a bomb on board that plane came from Switzerland, " he declared, after his officials had earlier attributed the warning to people claiming to be from Palestinian militant group Hamas.

“Hamas or no Hamas, it does not matter now...We had 123 passengers from various countries and six crew members in danger. A Belarusian nuclear power plant is near the flight route. The plane made a U-turn near this area. What if something went wrong? Do we need another Chernobyl here?”

Mr Lukashenko insisted the Ryanair crew had decided to land at Minsk airport, even though a transcript released by Belarusian authorities showed air traffic controllers urging the pilot to divert to Minsk and, as he repeatedly asked for more information about the bomb threat, they told him it was “code red”.

‘Another world war’

Ryanair boss Michael O’Leary called the incident “state-sponsored hijacking” and EU leaders quickly barred Belarusian airlines from the bloc, called on EU-based carriers not to fly through the country’s airspace and pledged to impose further sanctions on businesses that fund Mr Lukashenko’s regime.

“As we predicted, our ill-wishers at home and abroad have changed their methods of attacking the state...They have switched from organising riots to trying to strangle us,” he said on Wednesday.

"This is not just an information war, this is a modern hybrid war... Remember that Belarus is the centre of Europe before resorting to any hasty and ill-considered moves," he said. "If something breaks out here, it will mean another world war."

Hundreds of thousands of Belarusians protested last year after Mr Lukashenko claimed victory in a deeply flawed presidential election, and his security forces responded with a brutal crackdown in which several people died, hundreds were injured and more than 30,000 detained.

Mr Protasevich (26) worked for a media outlet, Nexta, which covered and then helped co-ordinate the protests, and Belarus accused him and fellow journalists and activists of serious crimes and portrayed them as extremists working with western intelligence agencies to topple the regime.

Mr Protasevich and his Russian girlfriend Sofia Sapega (23), who was arrested with him on Sunday, have this week "confessed" to committing crimes in televised statements that relatives and friends say were clearly scripted and forced.

"I'm asking, I'm begging, I'm calling on the whole international community to save him," Mr Protasevich's mother Natalia said in Poland on Wednesday. "Please save him! They're going to kill him in there!" she told AFP news agency.

Meanwhile, Ms Tikhanovskaya said Belarusian opposition leaders had agreed to “prepare for a new active phase of protests.”

“There’s nothing more to wait for,” she said from exile in Lithuania, “we have to stop the terror once and for all.”

Daniel McLaughlin

Daniel McLaughlin

Daniel McLaughlin is a contributor to The Irish Times from central and eastern Europe