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Lukashenko Defends Diverting Flight in Belarus to Arrest Activist

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FILE - Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko speaks during his meeting with parliamentarians, members of the Constitutional Commission and representatives of public administration bodies in Minsk, May 26, 2021.

Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko on Wednesday defended the diversion of a European flight and the arrest of a journalist and activist on board, saying he acted within international rules to protect the people of Belarus.

"As we predicted, our ill-wishers from outside the country and from inside the country changed their methods of attack on the state," Lukashenko said in an address to parliament. "They have crossed many red lines and have abandoned common sense and human morals."

The incident Sunday drew swift condemnation from European Union members and other governments. The U.N. Security Council is due to discuss the situation in an informal, closed-door meeting Wednesday, diplomats told VOA.

Airlines re-routed flights to avoid Belarusian airspace Tuesday in the aftermath of the Minsk government forcing down a passenger jet and arresting an opposition blogger critical of authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko.

Lufthansa, KLM, SAS, Air France, LOT and Singapore Airlines were among carriers that stopped flying over Belarus along a major Europe-to-Asia corridor that generates hard currency payments to the Minsk government, $300 to $940 per flight.

Belgium's Charles Michel, who chairs European Union summits, called the flight bans, "Europe in action," tweeting a picture of a flight tracker map showing no planes flying over Belarus.

Belarusian planes also faced a possible ban from flying to European Union cities, which could leave landlocked Belarus only able to reach its territory via its eastern border with its close ally Russia.

A still image shows a flight path of Ryanair FR4978 on May 23, 2021 on its way from Athens, Greece to Lithuanian capital Vilnius and diverted to Minsk, Belarus. (Courtesy: FLIGHTRADAR24.COM/Handout)
A still image shows a flight path of Ryanair FR4978 on May 23, 2021 on its way from Athens, Greece to Lithuanian capital Vilnius and diverted to Minsk, Belarus. (Courtesy: FLIGHTRADAR24.COM/Handout)

Lukashenko used the purported threat of a bomb Sunday aboard a Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius, Lithuania, to force the jetliner to land in Minsk. Belarusian authorities then arrested blogger Raman Pratasevich, accusing him of inciting massive rallies last summer against Lukashenko’s assertion of a landslide victory in last August’s election, in which he won a sixth term as the country’s leader with a claimed 80% of the vote.

A video released overnight showed the 26-year-old Pratasevich confessing to having organized anti-government demonstrations.

"I can state that I don't have any health issues, including diseases of the heart or any other organs. Police officers are treating me properly and according to the law," he says, adding that he had "confessed to organizing mass protests in Minsk."

German Chancellor Angela Merkel called the video "concerning" and described the forced landing of the passenger jet as "an unprecedented and unacceptable act."

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, among other world leaders, called the incident "state hijacking," and France and Ireland have described it as piracy.

"If we let this go, tomorrow Alexander Lukashenko will go further and do something even more arrogant, more cruel," Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said in a statement.

Exiled Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya said the video of Pratasevich showed he had been tortured.

"He said that he was treated lawfully, but he's clearly beaten and under pressure. There is no doubt that he was tortured. He was taken hostage," she told a news conference in the Lithuanian capital Vilnius.

Detained Opposition Journalist Raman Pratasevich Appears in Video in Belarus
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Belarus did not immediately comment on her allegation but has consistently denied abusing the thousands of people it has detained.

Human rights groups have cited hundreds of instances of what they contend are abuse and forced confessions resulting from a crackdown on pro-democracy opponents of Lukashenko since last year.

"The events of Sunday are just another escalation in the strategy of blind repression led by the regime of Mr. Lukashenko," French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told the French parliament.

The EU, as well as the United States, called on Lukashenko’s government to immediately release Pratasevich.

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