Defiant Lukashenko defends plane diversion, blasts critics

Airport personnel and security forces are seen on the tarmac in front of a Ryanair flight which was forced to land in Minsk Belarus

Airport personnel and security forces are seen on the tarmac in front of a Ryanair flight which was forced to land in Minsk Belarus

Belarus' authoritarian president lashed out Wednesday at Europe for trying to "strangle" his country with sanctions over the diversion of a passenger jet, and he accused a dissident journalist arrested after the flight landed in Minsk of working to foment a "bloody rebellion".

The girlfriend of a Belarusian blogger detained with him on Sunday after a plane they were travelling on was forced to land in Belarus appeared in a video on Tuesday evening in which she made a confession that the opposition said looked forced.

"Today Sofia was interrogated". Her lawyers had said earlier in the day that she has been jailed for two months, pending an investigation. No other details were given.

Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko denied that the fighter jet was forcing the Ryanair plane to land as an "absolute lie" and defended his action to divert the flight as a necessary response to the bomb threat.

Given her demeanour and manner of speaking during the video, supporters believe that she was forced to deliver a script.

Belarusian authorities said Monday that Protasevich was not hospitalized and was being held in a detention center in Minsk, a claim that could not be verified from the video. His father Dzmitry told Reuters he was alarmed as his son's nose appeared to have been broken, "because the shape of it is changed", and that his remarks were out of character. "I am citizen of the Russian Federation, I live in Lithuania - Vilnius".

"On 23.05.2021, I took the same flight as Roman Protasevich".

Sofia Sapega gave her name, age, and said she edited a Telegram channel that "publishes private information about internal affairs officers", according to a Sky News translation of the video.

Ms Sapega, a Russian citizen, had been travelling to Vilnius to defend her masters thesis at European Humanities University, where she is studying global law.

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On Wednesday, a flight by Belavia, the Belarusian flag carrier, from Minsk to Barcelona circled along the Polish border and then headed back to the Belarusian capital after Polish air control authorities said "the aircraft did not get permission to enter French airspace".

"As a result of a cover operation by the Belarusian authorities, the student was detained by the Administration of the Investigative Committee for the city of Minsk on groundless and made-up conditions", a statement by EHU says. "We protest against the unjustified detention of the member of EHU community".

Russia's foreign ministry said in a statement that she could face criminal charges.

Lukashenko has faced unprecedented pressure at home with months of protests triggered by his reelection to a sixth term in an August vote that the opposition rejected as rigged. He has said he fears the death penalty after being placed on a terrorism list. Both videos show signs that the pair were likely speaking under duress.

"She is guilty of being a friend of Roman". Rights groups have documented what they say are hundreds of cases of abuse and forced confessions since a year ago.

No clear link has been proven between Sapega and Belarus beyond the fact that she is Protasevich's girlfriend. "She will get through, she will withstand, I'm sure of that".

Western governments have told their airlines to re-route flights to avoid Belarus's airspace and have announced plans to ban Belarusian planes. The Belarusian MiG-29 was sent to help direct the Ryanair plane to land and facilitate communication in case of problems.

Protasevich's mother told AFP in Poland that she had not slept since he was arrested.

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