Western powers call for probe into Belarus plane diversion
The United States and western European members of the U.N. Security Council called on May 26 for the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) to investigate Belarus’ diversion of a European flight and arrest of a dissident on board.
Their call came hours after a defiant President Alexander Lukashenko on May 26 defended the action, lashing out at critics at home and abroad.
The shockwaves from the affair multiplied on May 26, as a Barcelona-bound flight from Minsk had to turn back after being refused access to French airspace, and as Poland closed its airspace to Belarusian carriers.
In his first public statement since the Ryanair flight was diverted and opposition journalist and activist Roman
Protasevich arrested on May 23, Lukashenko dismissed the subsequent international outcry.
"I acted lawfully to protect our people," Lukashenko said in an address to parliament.
The criticism was nothing more than another attempt by his opponents to undermine his rule, he said, accusing them of waging a "modern, hybrid war" against Belarus.
"Our ill-wishers at home and abroad have changed their methods of attacking the state," Lukashenko said, accusing them of crossing "red lines" and "boundaries of common sense and human morality".
Lukashenko - often dubbed "Europe’s last dictator" - is facing some of the strongest international pressure of his nearly 27 years ruling ex-Soviet Belarus.
But he continues to enjoy solid support from Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is hosting the Belarusian leader on May 28 spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on May 26 there was no reason to disbelieve Lukashenko’s version of events.
The Belarus strongman and his allies are under a series of Western sanctions over a brutal crackdown on mass protests that followed his disputed re-election to a sixth term last August.
European leaders, who accuse the authorities in Minsk of effectively hijacking the passenger flight, this week agreed to cut air links with Belarus and told airliners to avoid the country’s airspace.
The Belarusian opposition has called for stronger measures.
The Athens-to-Vilnius flight was diverted over a supposed bomb scare, with Lukashenko scrambling a MiG-29 fighter jet to accompany the aircraft.
Belarus has released a transcript of communications between Minsk air traffic control and the Ryanair flight, in which the crew was told "you have (a) bomb on board" and urged to land in Minsk.
Lukashenko on May 26 denied that the fighter jet had forced the airliner to land, calling such claims an "absolute lie".
Ukraine, Poland and Lithuania had denied the Ryanair flight permission to land and its only option was to turn to Minsk, he said.
Once the plane landed, Protasevich - the 26-year-old co-founder of opposition Telegram channel Nexta which coordinated last year’s protests against Lukashenko - and his Russian girlfriend Sofia Sapega were arrested.
He appeared in a video on May 24 in which he confessed to helping to organize mass unrest, a charge that could land him in jail for 15 years.
Sapega, a 23-year-old law student at the European Humanities University (EHU) in Lithuania, appeared in another video on May 25, saying she worked for a Telegram channel that disclosed information about Belarusian law enforcement.
Her lawyer said she had been remanded in pre-trial detention for two months and Russia confirmed she was being detained as a criminal suspect.
Belarus’s opposition says such videos are routinely recorded by security forces, with participants forced to make statements under duress.
Protasevich’s mother told AFP in Poland that she had not slept since he was arrested.
"I’m asking, I’m begging, I’m calling on the whole international community to save him," Natalia Protasevich said, weeping.
"They’re going to kill him in there."
His father Dmitry Protasevich said that his son’s lawyer was told that the journalist was not in his detention cell.
"We think that he may be in hospital," he told AFP. "We believe his life and health could be in danger."
EU leaders on May 24 warned they would adopt further "targeted economic sanctions" against the Belarusian authorities to add to the 88 regime figures and seven companies on a blacklist.
On May 26, a Minsk-to-Barcelona passenger flight by Belarusian state carrier Belavia was forced to turn back after being denied entry to French airspace, provoking an angry response from the authorities there.
And Poland banned Belarusian flights using its airspace as part of the EU-wide sanctions agreed.
Last year’s months of protests against Lukashenko, which involved tens of thousands of people, were brutally quashed and thousands were detained. Several people died in the unrest, while many reported torture and abuse in custody.
On May 26, dozens of people marched through the streets of Beryozovka east of Minsk for the funeral of Vitold Ashurok, 50, a well-known opposition activist who died on May 23 from cardiac arrest in a penal colony in eastern Belarus.
Opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya on May 26 urged the European Parliament to ban both new foreign investments in Belarus and the country’s main exports.
The call at the U.N. for the ICAO investigation echoes an earlier one from NATO. But Russia’s support for Minsk means the U.N. Security Council is unlikely to agree a collective statement.