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Belarus leader claims plane diversion protected passengers, says country is under ‘hybrid attack’

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko addresses the Parliament in Minsk, Belarus, on Wednesday. (Sergei Shelega/Pool/BelTA/AP)
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Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko struck a defiant tone on Wednesday, saying the interception of a Ryanair flight was not a way of arresting a dissident but was necessary to protect passengers from a possible bomb and his citizens from any harm befalling the country’s nuclear power plant.

He railed against European Union sanctions and flight diversions as part of a new kind of “hybrid attack” on his country and predicted close ally and neighbor Russia was the next target.

Here’s what to know:

  • Lukashenko, facing a furious wave of retaliation from the European Union, remained defiant Tuesday as his country arrested more journalists.
  • The Belarusian Transport Ministry released a transcript in which its air traffic controller told the Ryanair pilot to land in Minsk because a Hamas bomb aboard would explode over Vilnius. No bomb was found.
  • The Palestinian militant group Hamas denied it made a threat that a bomb was aboard the plane as Belarus claims.
  • Lukashenko plans to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday in Sochi, a Russian resort town on the Black Sea, the Kremlin said.
  • NATO and six members of the U.N. Security Council, including the United States, sharply criticize Belarus.

MOSCOW — A defiant President Alexander Lukashenko addressed the Belarusian parliament Wednesday morning to defend the forced diversion of a Ryanair plane to Minsk, which further pushed Belarus on the path of becoming an international pariah.

The skies over Belarus are empty as more and more foreign airlines cut traffic in response and European Union officials discuss fresh sanctions.

“I acted lawfully and was protecting the people according to all international rules,” Lukashenko said in his first public appearance since the incident and the subsequent arrest of a dissident journalist and his partner who were on the flight.

What you need to know about Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko

The Belarusian strongman, who has ruled the country since 1994 and known for often outlandish remarks, suggested that by diverting the plane, he also prevented a potential nuclear catastrophe, as the airliner could have triggered the defense systems on the country’s Astravec power plant.

He also slammed the West’s furious retaliation as an attempt to “suffocate” Belarus in an act of “hybrid war.”

“As we predicted, ill-wishers from outside and inside the country have changed their ways of attacking our country,” Lukashenko said. “They crossed many red lines, crossed the boundaries of common sense and human morality.”

He added that Belarus was only the beginning and predicted that such measures would later be used against Russia, his closest ally, as well.

For Belarus’s Lukashenko, Russia has been a lifeline for decades. Here’s why.

The Belarusian leader said the decision to intercept the plane filled with Lithuanian tourists coming back from Greece was prompted by a bomb threat, which he now claims originated from Switzerland.

Belarusian officials previously said the threat came via email from Hamas, the militant Palestinian organization ruling the Gaza Strip. Hamas has denied the accusation.

The sudden addition of Switzerland to the justification behind the action could be because the alleged Hamas email came from a ProtonMail address. The encrypted email service is based in Switzerland.

Lithuanian officials said the pilot diverted the plane to Minsk after the control tower told him the explosive would go off if he landed in Vilnius. Belarus scrambled a MiG-29 jet to escort the plane.

Upon landing, no bomb was found. The international community has cast doubt on whether the threat was real, linking the forced diversion of the airliner to the subsequent arrest of two of its passengers: journalist and Lukashenko critic Roman Protasevich and his traveling companion, Russian citizen Sofia Sapega.

Since the arrests, pro-government Belarusian outlets have released “confessional videos” in which Protasevich and Sapega are shown admitting to organizing mass riots and managing opposition Telegram channels.

In the video, Protasevich’s face appears to be marked with abrasions and bruises. The journalist’s father, Dmitry Protasevich, told Reuters that his son’s nose appeared to have been broken and that his behavior was out of character.

The confessions have been met with skepticism from scholars, family members and human rights groups. They say that there is little doubt that the confessions were coerced.

In his speech Wednesday, Lukashenko indicated that the clips were mere teasers and that more “confessions” supposedly confirming the plot to destabilize Belarus would be published soon.

“In the near future, we will present to you everything they said,” Lukashenko said. “Including those who were recently detained.”

International pressure on Belarus was mounting on various fronts.

At the U.N. Security Council, six members — Estonia, France, Ireland, Norway, Britain and the United States — denounced Belarus for “a blatant attack on international civilian aviation safety and European security” and called for an investigation by the International Civil Aviation Organization. But harsher Security Council action is unlikely because Belarus ally Russia can use its veto power.

NATO on Wednesday also condemned the Sunday incident, saying that it “seriously violated the norms governing civil aviation and endangered the lives of the passengers and crew,” and called for the release of Protasevich and Sapega.

But the alliance’s relatively muted response was a reminder that Lukashenko retains some influential friends and is not totally isolated. Turkey used its veto power to block any practical action against Minsk, which retained its formal partnership with the alliance, according to two diplomats who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the discussions were private.

Several European countries, including Britain and France, have closed their skies to the Belarusian state airline Belavia. On Wednesday, a Belavia flight bound from Minsk to Barcelona turned back after Poland — which permits Belavia overflights — said the plane may not be able to enter French airspace, the airline said in a statement.

In another sign of Belarus’s combative posture, the Foreign Ministry spokesman, Anatoly Glaz, called the block of Belavia overflights “an absolutely outrageous and an immoral act” and “practically air piracy.”

Exiled opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya said Wednesday that the Belarusian opposition is preparing for a new round of anti-government protests later in the year.

Mass protests erupted against Lukashenko last summer after he declared victory in a presidential election that the opposition said was rigged. The demonstrations have dwindled after the authorities launched a brutal crackdown, beating and arresting hundreds of activists.

“The regime is nearing a total isolation like never before,” Tikhanovskaya said in a statement posted on the Telegram app. “There’s nothing more to wait for — we have to stop the terror once and for all.”

Lukashenko, however, has one stalwart backer — Russian President Vladimir Putin, whom he is scheduled to meet this Friday in the resort town of Sochi.

Russian officials lined up to express firm support for the Belarusian leader, describing his explanation for landing the plane in Minsk as “reasonable.”

The Kremlin on Wednesday said it has “no reason” to doubt Minsk’s claims that the bomb threat came from Hamas or Switzerland.

“We have not seen any denials,” Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said. “So far we have not even heard any statements from European countries to somehow work this situation out. They are just shooting from the hip.”

Michael Birnbaum in Riga, Latvia, contributed to this report.