Russian President Vladimir Putin cemented his support of Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko in a meeting on Friday, saying that the West’s reaction to the interception and forced landing of a passenger jet “was an outburst of emotion.”
The meeting comes as international condemnation of Belarus continues to grow following what leaders have described as the state-sanctioned hijacking of a passenger flight.
A Ryanair flight traveling from Athens to the Lithuanian capital Vilnius was intercepted and forced to land in Minsk as it overflew Belarus on Sunday. When it landed, prominent opposition activist Roman Protasevich and his Russian partner Sofia Sapega, who were on the flight, were both detained.
Ahead of closed-door talks between the two strongmen leaders in Sochi on Friday, Lukashenko told Putin while gesturing to a briefcase that he brought documents to show Russia “what is going on” regarding the incident.
Lukashenko claims that the flight was diverted because of a bomb threat, saying the threat had originated in Switzerland, allegations that Swiss authorities refute.
The email indicating a bomb threat was sent 30 minutes after Lithuanian officials received the signal from Minsk to land the Vilnius-bound plane, according to Lithuanian president Gitanas Nausėda.
“The initial signal came from Minsk airport with the requirement to land in Minsk airport, and this signal came 30 minutes earlier than the email,” Nausėda told CNN on Friday. “So this is the reason, mismatch between the information presented officially, and the true information. This mismatch shows that it is misinformation, and we cannot just keep it for true.”
US warns airlines to ‘exercise extreme caution’ when flying over Belarus
The European Union has banned Belarus-registered carriers flying to and from European airports and urged European airlines to avoid Belarus airspace. The bloc is also mulling fresh sanctions against Belarus.
The decision to ban Belarus-registered carriers was a “painful” to make as “this kind of transport generates the hard currency” for Belarus, Nausėda said.
Nausėda said the action was directed at the Belarusian regime and oligarchs, not the Belarusian people or members of the opposition.
US aviation authorities on Friday warned airlines “to exercise extreme caution” when flying over Belarus.
A notice issued by the Federal Aviation Administration will remain in effect until it “can better assess the circumstances” around the incident.
“FAA evaluation of the pending international investigation report is necessary to determine the associated safety implications for U.S. civil passenger-carrying operations” in the airspace, it said.
On Thursday, the International Civil Aviation Organization said it would carry out an investigation into the diversion of the flight, while at least two European carriers say they were refused permission to fly to Moscow by Russian authorities after they requested to fly an alternative route bypassing Belarusian airspace.
Russia’s Federal Air Transport Agency said in a statement on Friday that it has issued a notice notifying airlines that changing previously approved routes from and to Europe through Russian airspace may result in longer clearance times due to an increase in requests.
During the meeting between the two strongmen, Lukashenko told Putin, “You know, there are always those who want to throw problems at us.”
“Taking advantage of such a trusting relationship as I have with you, I brought some documents. I’ll show them to you so that you understand what’s going on,” said Lukashenko, later adding, “I will show you some documents, you will understand what is happening there and what happened. There is an attempt to swing the situation up to the level of August last year.”
Last August, Lukashenko’s disputed reelection sparked some of the biggest anti-government demonstrations in Belarus’ recent history.
Protasevich was one of dozens of Belarusian journalists and activists campaigning in exile against Lukashenko’s 27-year grip. Protasevich, 26, is the founder of the Telegram channel Nexta, which helped mobilize anti-Lukashenko protests, and is on a government wanted list for terrorism.
Putin told Lukashenko on Friday that there was not an international outcry in 2013 a plane carrying Bolivia’s president was forced to land in Austria after false rumors circulated that former US National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden was aboard the aircraft.
Earlier this week, Lukashenko described the attacks on Belarus as modern hybrid warfare.
“The West has moved from (organizing) revolts to strangling the country,” Lukashenko told the Belarusian parliament. “As we predicted, our ill-wishers both outside and inside the country, have changed their methods of attacking the Belarusian state. They have crossed a lot of red lines and transgressed the limits of common sense and common morality.”
The G7 group of the world’s wealthiest nations on Thursday added its voice to the international condemnation of Belarus’s actions, issuing a joint statement that called the move a “serious attack on the rules governing civil aviation,” .
In the statement, the foreign ministers of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the UK and the US, as well as the High Representative of the EU demanded the “immediate and unconditional release of (Roman Protasevich), as well as all other journalists and political prisoners held in Belarus,” condemning the actions by Belarusian authorities “in the strongest terms.”