Alexander Lukashenko has given his first public remarks defending his grounding of a Ryanair flight last week, accusing the west of launching a “hybrid modern war” against Minsk and calling the backlash over the incident a “planned provocation”.
Addressing a session of parliament, Lukashenko also appeared to suggest the plane could have been shot down because it was flying over a nuclear power plant when it was diverted by the Belarusian government, which appeared to have concocted a bomb threat and scrambled a Mig-29 to ensure the plane landed.
Lukasheno has appeared unrepentant over the arrest of Belarusian journalist Raman Pratasevich and his girlfriend, Sofia Sapega, despite the threat of sanctions from the west over what has been called “air piracy” and an “act of state terrorism”.
Filmed confessions by Pratasevich and his girlfriend were clearly given under duress, family members have said.
On Tuesday evening, Sapega appeared in what supporters have compared to a hostage video, confessing to running an anti-government Telegram account that could threaten her with more than a decade in prison.
In the video, released via pro-state Belarusian media on Tuesday evening, Sapega, 23, gave an apparently memorised confession in which she admitted to running the Black Book of Belarus, which revealed personal details or “doxed” Belarusian riot police in an effort to “name and shame” them.
“I’m also the editor of the Telegram channel Black Book of Belarus that publishes personal information about employees of the interior ministry,” she said. The video was later leaked to pro-state media.
The channel, which opposition leaders have said was an effective means to combat police brutality against protesters last year, has angered the government of Lukashenko and led to embarrassing scenes of police officers running from protesters to avoid having their masks torn off.
Pratasevich helped run the popular Nexta Telegram account during the mass protests against Lukashenko. He been accused of extremism and calls to incite mass riots.
Sapega, a Russian citizen, was not known to have played any role in the Belarusian protests and her mother said that her daughter had “simply showed up in the wrong place at the wrong time”. Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, a leader of the Belarusian opposition operating in exile from nearby Lithuania, said that Sapega was under “psychological pressure”.
Lukashenko’s comments to parliament on Wednesday were his first defending the grounding of the Ryanair flight. “Whether or not there was a bomb, if I was informed there was a terrorist on board the plane, I would immediately give the order to have the plane land,” said Lukashenko.
During the speech, he said a bomb threat had come from someone in Switzerland, omitting previous claims by his transportation ministry that the threat had been sent by members of Hamas (a Hamas spokesman has denied any connection to the incident).
He blamed the west for launching a “hybrid modern war” against Belarus, calling his country a “test range” for launching the west’s conflict with Russia.
“They’ve moved on from preparing revolts to suffocating us,” said Lukashenko, who has been in power since 1994. “They are looking for new weaknesses.”
Pratasevich’s parents have pleaded for international help to free the Belarusian journalist as the US president, Joe Biden, said sanctions against Lukashenko’s regime were “in play”, without revealing further details.
From their new home in Poland, Natalia Pratasevich, the journalist’s mother, told Agence France-Presse: “I’m asking, I’m begging, I’m calling on the whole international community to save him.
“He’s only one journalist, he’s only one child but please, please … I am begging for help. Please save him. They’re going to kill him in there.”
Her husband, Dmitry Pratasevich, a former soldier, said: “The lawyer tried to see him today but she was turned down, she could not see him. We still don’t know if he is in there, what his condition is, how he is feeling.
“One of the ways our authorities torture is by not telling relatives where their loved ones are being held until the last minute,” he said.