Belarusian leader defends his action to divert flight

Belarusian leader defends his action to divert flight


KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Belarus' authoritarian president on Wednesday defended his action to divert a European flight that triggered bruising European Union sanctions and accused the West of waging a “hybrid war” to “strangle” the ex-Soviet nation.

On Sunday, Belarusian flight controllers ordered a Ryanair jetliner flying over the country to land because of a bomb threat and a Belarusian fighter jet was scrambled to escort the plane to Minsk, just before it was to land in Vilnius, Lithuania, from Athens, Greece. Once the plane landed, Belarusian security agents arrested Raman Pratasevich, a 26-year-old journalist and activist, and his Russian girlfriend.

Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko denied that the fighter jet was forcing the Ryanair plane to land as an “absolute lie” and defended his action to divert the flight as a necessary response to the 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-century, relentlessly stifling dissent.

Outraged EU leaders quickly agreed to ban Belarusian airlines from using the airspace and airports of the 27-nation bloc, urged European airlines to avoid Belarus’ airspace 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.

Speaking before lawmakers and top officials in Minsk, Lukashenko said the EU response was part of a “hybrid war” against Belarus.

“Our ill-wishers outside and inside the country have changed their methods of attacking the state,” Lukashenko said. “That's why they switched from organizing riots to trying to strangle us.”

Lukashenko has faced...

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