Ryanair ‘hijacked’ to protect people: Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko

President Alexander Lukashenko has accused outside “ill-wishers” of waging a “hybrid war” against Belarus as he defended Minsk’s forced diversion of a passenger plane, an incident that led to global outrage.

Belarus on Sunday forced a Ryanair flight heading from Greece to Lithuania to land in its capital in response to an alleged bomb threat.

Belarusian authorities then detained Roman Protasevich, a 26-year-old reporter and critic of longtime ruler Lukashenko, along with his girlfriend Sofia Sapega, who were on board.

Both now face criminal charges.

In his first public comments on Sunday’s move, Lukashenko said he had acted legally and in accordance with international norms, the state-run Belta news agency reported.

The 66-year-old claimed he wanted “to protect people” by diverting the flight and dismissed reports that a Mig-29 fighter jet forced the aircraft to land as an “absolute lie”.

Lukashenko accused critics of trying to use the plane episode to undermine his 27-year-long rule.

“As we predicted, our ill-wishers from outside the country and from inside the country changed their methods of attack on the state,” Lukashenko told members of parliament.

“They have crossed many red lines and have abandoned common sense and human morals.”

Lukashenko vowed to respond harshly to any sanctions or provocations, threatening to weaken the country’s border controls halting Western-bound migration and drug trafficking.

Russia, which has provided security, diplomatic and financial backing to Minsk said it had no reason to mistrust the Belarusian explanation.

In response to the plane diversion and arrest of Protasevich, the European Union is imposing more sanctions on the ex-Soviet nation and has banned Belarusian airlines from the 27-nation bloc.

Several air carriers have also suspended flights over Belarusian airspace.