Belarus dictator Alexander Lukashenko has threatened to flood Europe with migrants and drugs in response to western sanctions over the Ryanair flight hijacking.
The strongman leader told parliament that he plans to weaken border controls designed to catch drug and people smugglers after EU leaders cut off air travel with his country and threatened further sanctions.
‘We were stopping migrants and drugs – now you will [have to] catch them and eat them yourself,’ he said.
It comes after world leaders including Joe Biden, Boris Johnson, Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron lined up to condemn Lukashenko for diverting a Ryanair flight to Minsk on Sunday so he could arrest a dissident journalist and his girlfriend – calling it an ‘outrageous’ act and promising ‘consequences’.
EU leaders subsequently advised all airlines to avoid Belarus airspace while moving to ban flights from the country entering the bloc, potentially costing the regime tens of millions in lost revenue per year.
‘Targeted’ sanctions against members of Lukashenko’s government are also being prepared, the EU said, in addition to long-standing sanctions on the regime.
The UN security council is also due to meet in a closed-door session today to discuss the issue further.
But Lukashenko appeared unbothered as he gave a fiery address to parliament today – insisting that he acted ‘in line with the law’ when he diverted the flight as it crossed his airspace.
Alexander Lukashenko has threatened to weaken border controls in an attempt to flood Europe with migrants and drugs in response to EU sanctions
Around 1,500 migrants enter Europe each year through its eastern borders, according to Frontex, which says it is the least-busy route to the continent. Only a small number of those come via Belarus, the organisation says, though it is not clear how many are stopped from crossing
EU sanctioned Lukashenko after dissident journalist Roman Protasevich (left) and his girlfriend Sofia Sapega (right) were arrested in Belarus on Sunday after their plane was diverted
Belarus dictator Alexander Lukashenko has threatened to flood Europe with migrants and drugs in response to western sanctions over the Ryanair flight hijacking. Pictured: Migrants make their way through countryside after crossing the Croatia-Hungary border at the height of Europe’s refugee crisis in 2015
Airlines boycott Belarus airspace, potentially costing regime millions
EU leaders called for Belarusian airlines to be banned from European airspace and urged EU-based carriers to avoid flying over the country.
While the move is partly political, it could also cost the regime millions in lost air traffic control fees.
Here are the airlines that have so-far banned or restricted their pilots from flying in Belarus airspace:
SINGAPORE AIRLINES SIA
According to Lukashenko, the diversion had nothing to do with Roman or Sofia and actually took place after a bomb threat was issued out of Switzerland. The Swiss deny ever sending a bomb warning.
Officials had earlier said the threat originated from Hamas.
‘How were we supposed to act,’ Lukashenko asked. ‘My post requires me to protect people. I was thinking about the safety of the country.
‘I could not allow the plane to fall on our people’s heads. I acted in line with the law, protecting my people. And I will continue to do so.’
He went on to claim that he was particularly concerned about a nuclear plant along the plane’s flight path, worrying that wreckage could hit it and spark a ‘second Chernobyl’.
He said: ‘Was Chernobyl not enough? If there was a bomb on board the plane and terrorists wanted to blow it up, we couldn’t really have helped. But I couldn’t let the plane fall on our people’s heads.’
Russia, a key ally of Belarus, said it had ‘no reason to mistrust’ Lukashenko’s claim regarding the forced landing.
Around 1,500 migrants enter Europe each year through its eastern borders, according to monitoring group Frontex, which says it is the least-busy route to the continent.
Only a small number of those come via Belarus, the organisation says, though it is not clear how many are stopped from crossing.
During his speech, Lukashenko also claimed that Mr Protasevich was plotting a ‘bloody rebellion’ against him as part of a ‘hybrid war’ being waged against Belarus because it has close ties to Russia.
‘Our ill-wishers from outside and inside the country have changed the methods of attacking the state,’ he told lawmakers. ‘They have crossed red lines, crossed the boundaries of common sense and human morality.
‘This is no longer an information war, this is a hybrid modern war. Everything must be done, so that it does not grow into a hot one.
‘They are looking for new vulnerabilities, and this is directed not only at us: we are a testing ground for them, an experimental site before the dive to the East.
‘After testing with us, they will go there.’
Lukashenko claimed it was his ‘sovereign right’ to arrest Roman and Sofia.
‘Let his many Western defenders now answer the question: what secret services did this man work for? Not only him but also his accomplice.’
But while western leaders are attempting to isolate and pressurize Lukashenko with sanctions, analysts said the short-term impact will be limited.
Alexander Lukashenko, the strongman leader of Belarus, has accused jailed journalist Roman Protasevich of plotting ‘bloody rebellion’ against his regime – suggesting it is part of a western plot to ‘strangle’ Russia and its allies
Anne Applebaum, an author and historian, said Lukashenko likely ‘made a decision’ ahead of the hijacking that sacrificing his ties to the west was worth it because he can simply rely on Russia instead.
Belarus – a former Soviet state – already benefits heavily from its ties to Moscow in the form of cut-price oil it sells at a profit, along with other financial concessions.
‘[Lukashenko] doesn’t mind being cut off from the rest of the world and he doesn’t mind being totally reliant on Russia,’ she said.
‘[Russia] will now be his only ally, the only country that will buy goods from Belarus, the only country that will trade with him.
‘He has decided that remaining in power, the fate of his regime and probably his personal safety matters to him more than the rest of the country.’
But she added that sanctions are still an important tool that could pressure elites within Belarus to rebel and oust Lukashenko.
‘I think that’s what the Belarus opposition wants to have happen,’ she said.
Mr Protasevich made Belarus’s most-wanted list after becoming involved in huge anti-Lukashenko protests which took off after he declared victory in presidential elections last year which are widely believed to have been rigged.
The 26-year-old journalist was working for a news channel on messaging app Telegram called Nexta, which became a place for activists to organise.
From his base in Poland, Mr Protasevich angered the regime by posting dozens of videos of the demonstrations, which were the largest in Belarus since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Lukashenko said during his speech that Nexta is now not only reporting solely on Balarus but also ‘working full out against Russia, thus showing the true goal of western strategists’.
‘Their goal is to dissolve the Belarusian people and move on to smothering their arch-enemy: the Russian.’
Europe’s last dictator: Lukashenko has ruled Belarus with an iron fist since 1994
Born in 1954 in the village of Kopys, in what was then the USSR, Alexander Lukashenko was the son of an unknown father – thought by some to by a Roma gypsy – and a labourer mother, Ekaterina Lukashenko.
He studied in Belarus and graduated from the Mogilyov Teaching Institute in 1975, then went on to study at the Belarusian Agricultural Academy in the 1980s.
He did a brief stint in the Belarusian border guards and also served in the Soviet Army, becoming involved in politics as a teacher within the military, and as the leader of a Leninist organisation in the city of Mogilev.
After leaving the military he joined the ranks of the Communist Party and was appointed leader of a state farm, before being elected to the Supreme Council of Belarus in 1990.
Lukashenko made his name as an anti-corruption campaigner and emerged as a strong political ally of Moscow, and was the only deputy to oppose the December 1991 agreement that led to the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
In 1994 he appealed to Russia to form a new union of Slavic states, shortly before his election as President of Belarus – promising stronger ties between the two nations.
Two years later, he persuaded voters to approve a new constitution allowing him to extend his term in office, rule by degree, and to appoint a majority of parliament.
Lukashenko used those powers to extend his term in 1999, and won an election in 2001 and another in 2006 – amid allegations of vote-rigging that resulted EU leaders banning him from their countries.
Election victories – accompanied by more allegations of fixing – followed again in 2010 and 2015.
Lukashenko’s popularity declined rapidly between 2015 and 2020, spurred on by his increasingly erratic behaviour coupled with mismanagement of the Covid crisis – during which he claimed vodka and saunas could prevent the disease.
Amid a wave of dissent, another election was held in 2020 which returned an official victory for Lukashenko with 80 per cent of the vote – though few believe this to be accurate.
His main opponent – Sergei Tikhanovsky – was arrested in the run-up to the ballot, leaving wife Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya to run in his stead. She subsequently fled the country to Lithuania after being targeted by police.
Anger at the result sparked the largest wave of protests in Belarus since its Soviet days, with mass demonstrations, strikes and calls for a change of leadership.
Lukashenko responded by sending riot police on to the streets to round up dissenters, with an estimated 25,000 arrested by November. Eight have so-far died amid the crackdown – the most-recent of whom was political prisoner Vitold Ashurok.
Lukashenko has also cracked down on journalists, raiding the offices of the country’s largest newspaper Tut.by last week along with the home of its editor on charges of ‘tax evasion’.
On Sunday he staged his most-daring move yet, by diverting a Ryanair jet carrying dissident reporter Roman Protasevich to Lithuania before arresting him.
Mr Protasevich’s allies, including Ms Tsikhanouskaya, say they now fear for his life.
Mr Protasevich’s work at Nexta saw him declared an extremist and put on a terror watchlist. He is now being held in Minsk on charges of being a protest organiser – though Lukashenko’s regime refers to the demonstrations as ‘riots.’
It is unclear what charges girlfriend Sofia is being held on, as she has no known links to Mr Protasevich’s political activities. Late Tuesday, the regime released a video of her from inside detention in which she ‘confessed’ to running her own Telegram channel which published personal details of Belarus police officers.
Just a day earlier, Mr Protasevich had appeared in a similar video in which he ‘admitted’ to organising protests.
Families and supporters of the pair say the videos were produced under duress, and that the pair are likely being tortured. Mr Protasevich’s father Dzmitry said his son’s nose appears broken, and it also looks like he is wearing makeup to hide facial injuries.
While Ms Sapega does not appear wounded in her footage, mother Anna Dudich said she seems ‘afraid’ and is not speaking in a normal manner.
‘She sways, eyes in the sky – as if afraid of forgetting something,’ she told the BBC, calling the video a ‘setup’.
Meanwhile father Andrey Sapega, a former Russian marine, appealed directly to Vladimir Putin in a video posted online to help rescue his daughter.
‘I want to appeal for help to President Vladimir Putin, and the Russian Foreign Ministry,’ he says in the footage, while speaking in English.
‘My daughter Sofia is a hostage in this situation.
‘I strongly believe that only the united position of the international community can help, and above all I am hoping for the principled position of the Kremlin and the Russian Foreign Ministry.’
So far the Russian authorities had been ‘evasive’, he claims, adding: ‘I want to say just a few words addressing the government of my country.
‘I am a 53-year-old father of four. Sofia is my eldest daughter, my first kid, my sweet kid.
‘I’ve always been a law-abiding citizen, I paid my taxes and this is how I raised all my children.
‘I have defended the interests of my country when I served as a marine in Africa, the Indian Ocean and SouthEast Asia.
‘And now when my family faces such a threat I expect the same from my country.
‘I want to ask my president, in Russian and English, to please help our family. Our family is under threat. Will [you] help us, please.’
He made his appeal as it emerged that Sofia’s lawyer Alexander Filanovich was unable to see her following the release of a video-taped ‘confession’.
Sofia is a student at a private university in Vilnius where she is studying International law.
Her parents say she has no interest in politics and got caught up with this after an on-off relationship with Mr Protasevich.
Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov has since hit back at suggestions the Russian government was not assisting Sofia.
‘Beyond any doubt, all consular and legal assistance will be provided to this Russian citizen,’ he said.
‘Our Foreign Ministry has already said that.
‘The Belarusian side has said that she faces charges over participation in illegal rallies.
‘Besides, we have seen her confession.
‘But, in any case, she has the right to a legal defence, and of course, all necessary assistance will be extended to provide her with a legal defence.’
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.
Belarus opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya has condemned the ‘hijacking’ and on Wednesday said the opposition is preparing to stage a ‘new phase’ of active protests.
The opposition, led by Tsikhanouskaya said in a statement: ‘The Lukashenko regime is on the verge of a complete isolation as never before” in a statement issued after a meeting in Vilnius.
‘We shouldn’t wait any longer: terrorism has to be stopped once and for all. We’re getting ready for a new active phase of protests.’
Following his arrest, Protasevich’s mother has been begging the international community to save her son. Natalia Protasevich said the country’s authorities are ‘going to kill him’ unless world leaders help get him released.
She and her husband Dzmitry Protasevich said they saw clear signs of their son having been beaten in the first footage of him since he was detained.
Joe Biden has led criticism of Lukashenko, calling the arrests ‘outrageous’ and vowing to uphold ‘international norms’
Emmanuel Macron (left) said banning aircraft from Belarus airspace will have a ‘biting’ effect on the regime, while Angela Merkel (right) has rubbished Lukashenko’s bomb threat excuse as ‘completely implausible’
ROMAN PROTASEVICH: OPPOSITION BLOGGER FORCED INTO EXILE
NEXTA, Protasevich’s outlet, was closely involved in reporting a wave of opposition protests that last year threatened to topple Lukashenko, before he was given backing by Vladimir Putin
Protasevich, 26, has long been a thorn in the side of Belarus’s hardline dictator Alexander Lukashenko.
He worked as an editor at the Poland-based Nexta Live channel, which is based on the Telegram messenger app and has over 1 million subscribers.
The channel, which is openly hostile to Lukashenko, played an important role in broadcasting huge opposition protests against the President last year.
Nexta also helped coordinate those same protests, which were sparked by anger over what the opposition said was a rigged presidential election.
The channel’s footage, which showed how harshly police cracked down on demonstrators, was used widely by international media at a time when the Belarusian authorities were reluctant to allow foreign media in.
In November Protasevich published a copy of an official Belarusian list of terrorists on which his name figured.
The listing said he was accused of organising mass riots while working at Nexta. He also stands accused of disrupting social order and of inciting social hatred. He regards the allegations, which could see him jailed for years, as unjustified political repression.
Protasevich fled Belarus for Poland in 2019 due to pressure from the authorities, according to Media Solidarity, a group that supports Belarusian journalists.
He moved his parents to Poland too after they were put under surveillance. He later relocated to Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, where opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya is also based.
Protasevich is currently editor-in-chief of a Belarusian political outlet hosted on the Telegram messaging app called ‘Belarus of the Brain’ which has around a quarter of a million subscribers.
He was flying back to Vilnius from Greece where he had spent time taking photographs of a visit there by Tsikhanouskaya. He had posted the pictures to social media before flying back.
Mr Protasevich, 48, said his son had been ‘forced’ to film the video confession which was released on state TV late Monday and appeared to have a broken nose and missing teeth.
‘I’m asking, I’m begging, I’m calling on the whole international community to save him,’ Mrs Protasevich said, breaking down in tears. She said she has not slept for two nights and grips her phone tightly, hoping for any news of her son.
‘He’s only one journalist, he’s only one child but please, please. I’m begging for help,’ she said. ‘Please save him. They’re going to kill him in there.’
Protasevich’s parents said they think he might be in a detention centre run by the secret service, still known as the KGB. But they do not know for sure and the uncertainty is torturing them.
‘The lawyer tried to see him today but she was turned down, she could not see him. We still don’t know if he is in there, what his condition is, how he is feeling,’ said Mr Protasevich, , a former soldier.
‘One of the ways our authorities torture is by not telling relatives where their loved ones are being held until the last minute,’ he said.
Mr Protasevich said his son looked extremely nervous in the video footage which emerged on Monday and appeared to have bruises on the left side of his face and on his neck.
‘The video was clearly staged. It was done under pressure and it should not be believed,’ he said. But, he added, ‘at least it shows he is alive.
‘It is very likely that his nose is broken, because the shape of it is changed and there’s much powder on the front of it, all of the left side of his face has powder, there’s some greasy stuff on the left side.
‘I think he was forced. It’s not his words, it’s not his intonation of speech, he is acting very reserved and you can see he is nervous,’ he said.
Holidaying with his girlfriend in Greece, Mr Protasevich said Roman ‘could not have predicted such an outcome’.
‘He was on a plane registered in an EU country… and flying from an EU country to an EU country,’ he said, with mother Natalia adding that he is still in shock that Belarusian authorities would deploy a fighter jet to force the plane to land.
‘They sent a fighter jet to get this young man. It’s an act of terrorism, I don’t think you can call it anything else. He’s been taken hostage. This is an act of pure revenge,’ she said.
The hijacking unfolded around 9.45am GMT on Sunday as Ryanair flight FR4978 was flying through Belarus airspace on its way from Athens to Vilnius, when a Belarus MiG-29 fighter jet intercepted it.
Belarus authorities claimed they had received a bomb threat from Hamas – the group which operates in Gaza – threatening to blow up the plane in the skies above Vilnius, and informed the pilot of the threat.
According to officials in Belarus, the pilot then made the decision to divert to Minsk rather than continue to Vilnius or divert to another airport.
But observers say this makes no sense, as Vilnius was by far the closest airport – theorising that the fighter jet may have threatened to shoot down the passenger plane. Belarus denies this.
Hamas has denied there was any bomb threat, and has no known ability to operate outside of Gaza and Israel. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has also poured scorn on the idea, calling it ‘completely implausible’.
Around half an hour later, the flight landed in Minsk where the passengers were taken off and had their baggage searched.
Dominic Raab, the UK’s foreign secretary, said on Monday the forced landing could not have taken place without the approval of the Kremlin.
Witnesses say Mr Protasevich told them he was going to be arrested and faced ‘the death penalty’ before he was taken to a waiting SUV and sped away. Miss Sapega was also arrested.
Flight logs show three other passengers also disembarked in Minsk, amid claims these were Belarusian KGB agents sent to oversee the operation.
Initially it was thought that the agents could have been from the namesake Russian KGB, but Moscow has denied any involvement. The Kremlin says it is seeking consular access to Miss Sapega, who is a Russian citizen.
The trio who departed in Minsk have since appeared on Belarus state TV where they were presented as two Belarus nationals – Sergey Kulakov and Alexandra Stabredova – and a Greek man, Zisis Yason.
Opposition journalist Roman Protasevich’s girlfriend Sofia Sapega who was also detained
Belarusian dog handler checks luggage from the Ryanair flight in Minsk International Airport on May 23
Ryanair flight FR4978 had been flying from Athens in Greece to Vilnius in Lithuania when it was escorted by a Soviet-era MiG-29 fighter jet to Belarus amid fake reports of an IED on board. It was forced to make an emergency landing at Minsk Airport, where authorities arrested dissident journalist Roman Protasevich
Who is Sofia Sapega, Roman’s girlfriend?
Belarus arrested journalist Roman Protasevich in Minsk on Sunday, alongside girlfriend Sofia Sapega.
While Roman is a well-known dissident and prominent reporter, far less is known about Miss Sapega.
Russia has confirmed that she is one of its citizens, and social media suggests she is originally from Vladivostok and has a father who lives in Thailand.
Miss Sapega also appears to have family in Belarus, but for the past several years has been living in Lithuania while studying at the European Humanities University.
The university confirmed she is studying international and European Union law, and had been due to defend her Master’s thesis before being arrested.
It is thought that she and Roman had been dating for around six months before Sunday’s hijacking, having met in a bar in Vilnius.
Miss Sapega’s mother revealed to the BBC that she had managed to send a message reading ‘mummy’ to her on WhatsApp before being arrested.
Her mother added that she is now being held in jail in Minsk, and Russia’s foreign ministry says it has asked for consular access. The charges against her are unclear.
The group claimed they had been due to fly to Minsk anyway and had begged to be kept off the flight when it returned to the skies, around seven hours after it first touched down. They did not directly address claims about being undercover agents.
Before his arrest on Sunday, Mr Protasevich had flown to Greece to accompany opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya to the Delphi Economic Forum and had stayed on for a few days afterwards with his girlfriend.
Mr Protasevich had previously talked to friends about the risk of flying through Belarus airspace, but was apparently lulled into a false sense of security when Ms Tikhanovskaya flew from Athens to Lithuania several days before him without incident.
But on the day of his own flight, suspicions that things weren’t quite right began to appear at the check-in desk – as Mr Protasevich messaged friends to say that a man ‘speaking Russian’ had tried to photograph his travel documents.
‘It’s not certain,’ he texted a friend afterwards. ‘But in any case that’s some suspicious sh.’
Nevertheless, he boarded the flight which took off at 9.29 local time, and flew most of its route as scheduled – including more than 100 miles through Belarus airspace.
But at 12.46 Belarus time, things suddenly changed. The plane made a sudden and sharp turn and began heading towards Minsk.
The captain announced to passengers shortly afterwards that the flight would be landing in the Belarus capital, without explaining why.
But witnesses say Protasevich was in no doubt. ‘They will arrest me,’ he is said to have told cabin crew, urging them to continue to Vilnius as scheduled – a request they reportedly refused.
The plane landed at Minsk around half an hour later, where Protasevich was separated from the other passengers and whisked away – telling them ‘a death sentence awaits me here’.
A Lithuanian passenger on board the plane, who gave his name as Mantas, told how Protasevich jumped from his seat as the captain announced the plane was being diverted.
‘Roman stood up, opened the luggage compartment, took luggage and was trying to split things,’ he said.
‘I think he made a mistake. There were plenty of people so he could give the things to me or other passengers and not the girlfriend, who was also I think arrested.’
Mantas was speaking to Reuters after a day-long ordeal that began in Athens and finally ended late in the evening in the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius, after a stopover of more than seven hours in Minsk.
Another exhausted passenger, speaking to reporters without giving her name, said Protasevich looked ‘super scared’.
‘I looked directly into his eyes and he was very sad,’ she said. Protasevich was immediately separated on arrival in Minsk and checks of luggage using sniffer dogs turned up nothing.
‘We saw that Roman was stopped due to some things in the luggage,’ Mantas said, adding that the other passengers also had their luggage checked and were taken by bus to the terminal where they spent several hours waiting to reboard the plane.
‘We saw from the window that Roman is standing alone, and one policeman with dog was trying to find something (in his luggage).’
Another passenger, who also did not give his name, told Lithuanian media that Protasevich had identified himself to Belarusian security officials on arrival. ‘I saw how his passport was taken away. He took off his mask and said: ‘I’m so-and-so and I’m the reason why all this is going on.”
Aviation experts revealed that the passenger plane had been significantly closer to Vilnius than it was to Minsk when it was forced to turn around, making a mockery of the Belarusian claims that it needed to make an emergency landing for a bomb threat.
Leading opposition figure Pavel Latushko said: ‘The air traffic controllers of Minsk-2 airport threatened to shoot at the Ryanair civilian plane with passengers on board. For this reason, a military fighter MiG-29 of Belarus Air Force was sent.
‘This proves again that this incident was an act of state terrorism… It demands an immediate reaction of European authorities and the entire world community.’