Lukashenko Defends 'Legal' Plane Diversion to Belarus, Kremlin Backs Him

Mantas a Lithuanian passenger of Ryanair flight FR4978 speaks to the media after arriving at Vilnius Airport Lithuania

World leaders have condemned authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko for what many have described as a "hijacking", while the European Union imposed sanctions and US President Joe Biden described it as an "outrageous incident" and a "direct affront to global norms". Russia has dismissed Western outrage, despite Protasevich's girlfriend and Russian citizen Sofiya Sapega's arrest aboard the same flight, and is expected to oppose a collective statement on the incident.

"I acted in a lawful way, protecting people in line with worldwide rules", said Lukashenko, who has ruled Belarus with an iron fist for more than a quarter-century, relentlessly stifling dissent.

On Wednesday, a flight by Belavia, the Belarusian flag carrier, from Minsk to Barcelona circled along the Polish border and then headed back to the Belarusian capital after Polish air control authorities said "the aircraft did not get permission to enter French airspace".

"A decision to land the plane was not ours", he said.

"Our ill-wishers outside and inside the country have changed their methods of attacking the state", Lukashenko said.

"They have crossed many red lines and crossed boundaries of common sense and human morality". Mr. Lukashenko - often dubbed "Europe's last dictator" - is facing some of the strongest global pressure of his 26-year rule of ex-Soviet Belarus.

26-year-old Protasevich faces charges related to his reporting of last August's disputed election and subsequent crackdown on mass opposition protests.

European leaders have described Protasevich's arrest as a state-sponsored hijacking and kidnapping, and on Monday called on airlines not to fly over Belarus, while barring Belarusian airlines from EU airspace and airports.

Exiled opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya said on Wednesday the opposition was preparing a new phase of active anti-government protests.


Lukashenko had additional warnings for the many opposition activists who have sought refuge overseas.

His first public comments on the forced diversion came ahead of a UN Security Council meeting behind closed doors set for later Wednesday.

"We acted in strict accordance with aviation safety rules", he said, claiming the crew hesitated for about a quarter hour before following the Belarusian flight controllers' directions to land in Minsk. The video uploaded Tuesday shows Sapega appearing to admit she'd been on the plane with Protasevich, and that she'd worked for a social media channel that gave up information on Belarusian government workers, which is illegal.

Belarusian authorities have extended Sapega's detention for two months, TASS news agency reported, citing her father, Sergey Dudich.

After his detention, opposition journalist Roman Protasevich was seen in a brief video clip on Belarusian state television late Monday, speaking rapidly to say that he was confessing to some of the charges authorities have leveled against him.

"In Minsk she just wrote me "Mama".

"I'm asking, I'm begging, I'm calling on the whole worldwide community to save him", Natalia Protasevich said, weeping. "I urge you very much because they will kill him, they will kill him!"

Belarus has already been subject to European Union and US sanctions since Lukashenko cracked down on pro-democracy protests after a disputed election past year. But he has only doubled down on repression, and more than 35,000 people have been arrested since the protests began, with thousands beaten.

Lukashenko, who has been battling to stay in power after a fraudulent election in August unleashed months of massive protests against his regime, accused Protasevich of being a Western spy.

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