Insurgent Lukashenko addresses the Belarusian parliament as the UN Security Council meets
A defiant President Lukashenko will address the Belarusian parliament on Wednesday as international pressure to divert the country from a plane to arrest a dissident mounts, and the UN Security Council will later meet behind closed doors.
The speech before parliament marks the first time the Belarusian leader has spoken publicly since the rerouting of a Ryanair flight to Minsk on Sunday and the subsequent arrest of opposition journalist Roman Protasevich.
After enduring a wave of protests and Western sanctions last year, Lukashenko is facing renewed pressure on the incident, with Western leaders demanding Protasevich’s release and the European Union cutting air connections with the increasingly isolated nation.
But a diplomat told AFP it was unlikely that the Security Council would agree on a collective statement at Wednesday’s meeting, as Belarus’s staunch supporter, Russia, was expected to be in opposition.
Moscow has dismissed outrage over the arrest, saying Belarus was acting reasonably and within the law when the plane was diverted.
On Tuesday, the Belarusian Ministry of Transport released a transcript of the communication between Minsk Air Traffic Control and Ryanair’s flight, in which the crew was informed that “you have a bomb on board” and urged them to enter Minsk. to land.
The allegation of a real bomb threat has been rejected by Western leaders.
‘They are going to kill him’
Protasevich’s mother told AFP on Tuesday that she had not slept since her son and his Russian girlfriend Sofia Sapega were arrested after the flight from Athens to Vilnius landed in Minsk.
“I ask, I implore, I call on the entire international community to save him,” Natalia Protasevich said, crying. “They’re going to kill him in there!”
Protasevich, 26, co-founded the Nexta Telegram channel, which last year helped organize the protests that posed the greatest challenge to Lukashenko’s long reign.
He lived between Poland and Lithuania.
His parents said they think their son may now be in a detention center run by the Secret Service, still known as the KGB.
“The lawyer tried to speak to him today but she was turned down, she couldn’t see him. We still don’t know if he’s in there, what his condition is, how he’s feeling,” said his father Dmitry.
A 30-second video of Protasevich aired on state television late Monday confirming he was in prison in Minsk and “known” allegations of staging mass unrest.
With dark markings on his forehead, he said he was being treated “according to the law.”
But Dmitry told AFP it appeared his son had been harmed.
“He would never speak like that. Those weren’t his words … he read something that he was told to read,” he said.
‘Time to act’
Opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya urged the international community to do more in an appeal with US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan.
“Now is the time to act,” she said. Suspending flights over Belarus does not solve the real problem. The problem is the terrorist regime that falsified the elections last year.
US President Joe Biden, who is expected to meet with Putin in June, said Washington was looking at “suitable options for holding those responsible to account.”
French President Emmanuel Macron said on Tuesday that the EU must “radically redefine its relationship with Russia and Belarus” because “we are at the limits of sanctions policy,” while German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas warned that Lukashenko had “a bitter price “would pay for the” gruesome “flight diversion.
The UN Rights Office and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson joined the call for the release of Protasevich, and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he would “strongly support action through all available international institutions,” including NATO.
The European Union has agreed to ban Belarusian airlines from the bloc and has called on EU-based airlines not to fly over the airspace.
Air France, Finnair and Singapore Airlines were the last airlines to suspend flights over Belarus, after Scandinavian airline SAS, German Lufthansa and Latvia-based regional airline airBaltic.
Lukashenko and his allies are already under a string of Western sanctions for cracking down on the protests that followed his disputed re-election for a sixth term in August last year.
EU leaders warned on Monday that they would adopt further “targeted economic sanctions” against the Belarusian authorities to increase the regime’s numbers of 88 and seven blacklisted companies.
The protests lasted for months and tens of thousands took to the streets to denounce Lukashenko, who has ruled Belarus with an iron fist for more than two decades.
The demonstrations were brutally crushed and thousands were detained – many of whom reported torture and abuse in custody.
Many protest leaders – including Tikhanovskaya who claimed victory in the August vote – have fled the country and the demonstrations have waned.
In Minsk, many welcomed the European flight ban, saying Belarusians were largely unable to travel anyway and more pressure was needed to change.
“An ordinary Belarusian will not suffer. Ordinary Belarusians cannot afford flights,” said Valentina, a retired teacher who, like others, was afraid to give her last name.