- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 26, 2021

A defiant President Alexander Lukashenko on Wednesday said Belarus’ “ill-wishers” are trying to strangle his country through a hybrid form of war after the European Union and the U.S. stepped up their condemnation of the arrest of an opposition journalist who was aboard a commercial plane abruptly diverted from Lithuania to Minsk.

Mr. Lukashenko, addressing lawmakers and dignitaries, spoke after European counties decided to avoid Belarusian airspace and considered further sanctions because of the incident.

His message and tone suggested the controversy generated by the audacious plane diversion will not die down easily.

“As we have expected, our ill-wishers from the outside and from within have changed their methods of attacking the state,” Mr. Lukashenko said, according to the state-owned Belarusian Telegraph Agency, or BelTA.

“They have crossed many red lines, have crossed the boundaries of common sense and human morals. This is not just the information war, this is a modern hybrid war,” he added.

Mr. Lukashenko, whose claims to victory in last August’s presidential election have been widely disputed, insisted again that it was a bomb threat from Switzerland forced the Ryanair commercial flight’s sudden diversion to his capital — an explanation that has been greeted with incredulity in the West, where leaders condemned the incident as a thinly veiled attempt to detain dissident writer and activist Roman Protasevich.

SEE ALSO: Belarusian leader defends his action to divert flight

Mr. Protasevich’s Telegram channel Nexta has become the go-to source and organizing platform for opposition supporters who have kept up a steady drumbeat of protests and demonstrations the face of a harsh government crackdown. The journalist was forced to give a video address Tuesday claiming he was being treated well in detention.

The Minsk regime initially suggested the bomb threat came from Hamas, though Mr. Lukashenko argued the point is the flight made a split-second decision to come to his country to avoid disaster.

“We had 123 passengers from various countries and six crew members in danger. The Belarusian nuclear power plant is located close to the flight route. The plane made a U-turn near this area. What if something went wrong? Do we need another Chernobyl here?” Mr. Lukashenko, who has ruled Belarus since 1994 and is often referred to as Europe’s “last dictator,” said.

Belarus released a transcript of the call to Ryanair on Tuesday in which pilots repeatedly questioned the request to land in Minsk but ultimately agreed.

The White House said Wednesday that Europe is leading the response to the incident but there will be consequences.

“This was a flight that was between European capitals,” White House Deputy Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Wednesday. “There were Americans on this flight, clearly, as well, and we are very concerned. The president condemned it, and there will be more to come.”

The EU quickly imposed new sanctions on the government and carriers across Europe scrambled to re-route planes away from Belarusian airspace and to cancel flights into and out of the country.

In Poland, Mr. Protasevich’s parents told the Associated Press that they fear for his welfare and made an emotional plea for assistance.

“World, please stand up and help. I urge you very much because they will kill him, they will kill him!” Natalia Protasevich said through tears in the interview in Warsaw.

Her son in the video broadcast on Belarusian state TV on Monday appeared to confess to some of the charges against him.

Natalia Protasevich told the wire service her son’s nose appeared to broken and he seemed to be wearing makeup to cover facial bruises. The journalist’s father, Dmitry Protasevich, said his son must have been forced to make the confession.

Ivan Tertel, head of the Belarusian state security agency that still goes under its Soviet-era acronym KGB, said Mr. Protasevich told investigators about “the sponsors of subversive activities against Belarus, its mechanisms and special services and politicians behind it” and promised to release details soon.

The 26-year-old Mr. Protasevich, who fled to Lithuania in 2019, was charged in absentia with staging mass riots and encouraging opposition to the government. Those charges carry a prison sentence of up to 15 years, and some fear he could face more serious charges, including some that carry the death penalty, the AP reported

This article was based in part on wire service reports.

• Tom Howell Jr. can be reached at thowell@washingtontimes.com.

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