Lukashenko defends plane diversion, says Belarus acted ‘lawfully’

Belarus leader defends diversion of flight carrying activist

But Polish government spokesman Piotr Muller later said the country's cabinet had approved a ban on Belarusian carriers entering its airspace.

The EU banned Belarusian planes from the bloc's airspace and urged EU airlines to avoid flying over the ex-Soviet country ruled for almost 27 years by Alexander Lukashenko, often dubbed "Europe's last dictator".

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 Belarusian capital.

The European Union's foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said Thursday that proposals were "on the table" to target key sectors of the Belarusian economy.

But a defiant President Alexander Lukashenko said he had "acted lawfully to protect our people", in an address to parliament on Wednesday.

In his first public statement since the Ryanair flight was diverted and opposition journalist and activist Roman Protasevich was arrested on Sunday, Lukashenko dismissed the subsequent global outcry.

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.

Mr Lukashenko and his allies were already under European and U.S. sanctions over the violent crackdown on post-election protests that gripped the nation previous year.

But he has only intensified repression, and more than 35,000 people have been arrested since the protests began, with thousands beaten. How did he become such a target for Belarus' regime?

Protasevich, who had been living between Poland and Lithuania, appeared in a video on Monday in which he confessed to helping to organise mass unrest, a charge that could land him in jail for 15 years.

The ICAO, of which Belarus is a member state, said on Monday that it was "strongly concerned by the apparent forced landing".

He had been charged in absentia with staging mass riots and fanning social hatred. However, Lukashenko reiterated that he will not release the detained journalist who is now facing 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".

He said Belarus will retaliate by weakening its border controls halting Western-bound illegal migration and drug trafficking.

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Earlier this week, Germany and Lithuania announced they would pull out of the championships, while a top British Cycling official said there was "no way" the event could be held in Belarus.

The Lukashenko regime in Belarus has accused Western countries of waging a "hybrid war" against them.

"We think that he may be in hospital", he told AFP.

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