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Belarusian leader defends diversion of flight that drew fury

(Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko addresses the Parliament in Minsk, Belarus, Wednesday, May 26, 2021. Lukashenko is defending 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, May 23, 2021, Belarusian flight controllers ordered a Ryanair jetliner flying from Greece to Vilnius to land in the country’s capital, Minsk because of a bomb threat and a Belarusian fighter jet was scrambled to escort the plane. Photo: Sergei Shelega-BelTA Pool Photo via AP)

By YURAS KARMANAU, KYIV, Ukraine (AP):- Belarus’ authoritarian president defended Wednesday his decision to tell a passenger jet to land in his country and accused European leaders of waging a “hybrid war” to “strangle” his nation by ordering up new sanctions for diverting the flight and arresting an opposition journalist who was aboard.

Speaking before lawmakers and top officials, President Alexander Lukashenko maintained his contention that there was a bomb threat against the Ryanair flight and called it an “absolute lie” that a fighter jet he scrambled was forcing the passenger plane to land in Minsk. The carrier has said its crew was instructed to land. The plane was searched once on the ground, and no bomb was found — but Raman Pratasevich, a 26-year-old journalist and activist, and his Russian girlfriend were detained.

“I acted in a lawful way, protecting people in line with international rules,” said 66-year-old Lukashenko, who has ruled the ex-Soviet nation with an iron fist for more than a quarter-century, relentlessly stifling dissent.

He doubled down on the idea that there was a grave security risk, saying the plane was flying not far away from the Astravets nuclear power plant and adding that he ordered air defense systems on high alert. “I had to protect people, I was thinking about the country’s security,” he said.

But European Union leaders have denounced the move to divert the plane — which was traveling between two EU countries and being operated by an airline based in a third — as an act of piracy. They quickly agreed to ban Belarusian airlines from using the airspace and airports of the 27-nation bloc and urged European airlines to avoid Belarus’ airspace. They agreed to draft more sanctions on officials linked to the diversion and ones targeting businesses that are the main cash earners for Lukashenko’s regime.

Lukashenko derided that response.

“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.”

He added: “It’s no longer just an information war, it’s a modern hybrid war and we need to do everything to prevent it from spilling into a hot conflict.”

Lukashenko has faced unprecedented pressure at home with months of protests triggered by his reelection to a sixth term in an August 2020 vote that the opposition rejected as rigged. But he has only doubled down on repression, and more than 35,000 people have been arrested since the protests began, with thousands beaten.

Pratasevich, who left Belarus in 2019, has become a top foe of Lukashenko with a popular messaging app he ran playing a key role in helping organize the huge protests. After his detention, the journalist was seen in a brief video clip on Belarusian state television late Monday, speaking rapidly to say that he was confessing to some of the charges authorities have leveled against him. A U.N. official expressed concern for his welfare, saying his appearance likely was not voluntary and there seemed to be bruising to his face.

On Wednesday, Lukashenko threatened that Belarus would retaliate against the EU by weakening its border controls halting Western-bound illegal migration and drug trafficking.

“We were stopping migrants and drugs — now you will catch them and eat them yourself,” he said.

Prime Minister Roman Golovchenko also warned that the country could halt Western cargo shipments via Belarus.

“Our measures would be quite painful for the countries that have taken an openly hostile stance — from import bans to restrictions on transit,” he said. “Still, we hope that those who rush to pass the point of no return to sober up and think twice before entering a slippery path of economic war in which there will be no winners.”

Pratasevich had been charged in absentia with staging mass riots and fanning social hatred. Those carry a prison sentence of up to 15 years, and some fear Pratasevich could face more serious charges, including some that carry the death penalty.

Lukashenko alleged Wednesday that Pratasevich and his associates were working in cahoots with foreign spy agencies to “organize a massacre and a bloody rebellion in Belarus.”

Associated Press writer Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow contributed to this report.

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