Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko hit out at Western powers on Wednesday, saying that his country's "ill-wishers" are "trying to strangle Belarus."
It's the first time Lukashenko has spoken in public since a Ryanair plane was diverted over the weekend and dissident blogger Raman Pratasevich and law student Sofia Sapega were taken into custody.
What did Lukashenko say?
In his speech, Lukashenko said that "attacks" on Belarus have crossed "red lines."
"As we predicted, our ill-wishers at home and abroad have changed their methods of attacking the state. They have crossed many red lines and crossed boundaries of common sense and human morality," Lukashenko said as he addressed members of parliament, the Belta state-run news agency reported.
He also said that a bomb threat, which Belarusian authorities said was behind the plane's landing in Minsk, came from Switzerland, and that outside forces were waging a "hybrid war" against the country.
Lukashenko additionally called it an "absolute lie" that a fighter jet forced the plane to land, and said Belarus had acted "lawfully, to protect people."
"I acted lawfully to protect our people," he said, also accusing Pratasevich of planning to start a "bloody rebellion."
What happened with the flight?
On Sunday, Belarusian authorities forced a Ryanair plane to land as it was flying to Lithuanian capital, Vilnius.
Upon landing in Minsk, authorities and took blogger Raman Pratasevich and his girlfriend, Sofia Sapega, into custody.
Prior to his arrest, Pratasevich — a vocal critic of Lukashenko — was traveling from Greece to Lithuania.
Minsk ordered the commercial plane flying over its airspace to land, claiming a bomb was onboard — an explanation German Chancellor Angela Merkel has called "completely implausible."
The EU responded by slapping sanctions on Belarus, including a ban on Belarusian airlines using EU airspace or airports.
Following Lukashenko's comments on Wednesday, the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) said it was advising EU airlines, as well as non-EU carriers flying to or from the bloc, to avoid airspace above Belarus.
"The circumstances surrounding this action cast serious doubts on the respect shown by Belarus for international civil aviation rules," the EASA said in a safety bulletin.
"The actions undertaken by Belarus amounted to an increased safety risk for the [Ryanair] flight and put into question the ability of Belarus to provide safe air navigation services."
Opposition announces new protests
Meanwhile, the Belarusian opposition it is preparing to stage a new phase of active anti-government protests in Belarus, exiled opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya said.
Mass protests erupted against longtime-leader Lukashenko last summer after he declared victory in a presidential election that his opponents said was rigged. The protests slowed down after a sweeping and brutal crackdown implemented by authorities.
"There's nothing more to wait for, we have to stop the terror once and for all," Tsikhanouskaya said in a statement on social media.
lc/rs (AFP, Reuters)