Belarus leader defends diversion of flight carrying activist

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The EU banned Belarusian planes from the bloc's airspace and urged EU airlines to avoid flying over the ex-Soviet country ruled for almost 27 years by Alexander Lukashenko, often dubbed "Europe's last dictator".

"We regret that our passengers have to face this situation for reasons beyond the airline's control", Belavia said as it scrapped flights to Amsterdam, Barcelona, Berlin, Brussels, Frankfurt, Hanover, Kaliningrad, Milan, Munich, Rome, Vienna and Warsaw until October 30.

They said the bloc will introduce more sanctions targeting businesses that are the main cash earners for Mr Lukashenko's regime.

But the text also says signatories must "refrain from resorting to the use of weapons against civil aircraft in flight and that, in the case of interception, the lives of persons on board and the safety of aircraft must not be endangered".

The criticism was nothing more than another attempt by his opponents to undermine his rule, he said, accusing them of waging a "modern, hybrid war" against Belarus. The plane was searched once on the ground, and no bomb was found but Protasevich - the 26-year-old co-founder of opposition Telegram channel Nexta - and his Russian girlfriend Sofia Sapega were arrested after the plane landed.

He claimed that Ukraine, Poland and Lithuania had denied the Ryanair flight permission to land and that its only option had been to turn to Minsk.

In his first public statement since the Ryanair flight was diverted and opposition journalist and activist Roman Protasevich arrested on Sunday, Lukashenko dismissed the global outcry the incident provoked.

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The call for action against Lukashenko follows the detention of dissident journalist Roman Protasevich on Sunday after his plane was ordered to land in the Belarusian capital of Minsk while it was crossing through the country's airspace.

But he has only intensified repression, and more than 35,000 people have been arrested since the protests began, with thousands beaten.

Mr Protasevich, who left Belarus in 2019, has become a leading critic of Mr Lukashenko with a popular messaging app he ran playing a key role in helping organise the huge protests.

We will enhance our efforts, including through further sanctions as appropriate, to promote accountability for the actions of the Belarusian authorities. The forced landing led to worldwide outrage, with the United Nations expressing "deep concern".

Pratasevich had been charged in absentia with staging mass riots and fanning social hatred.

He said Belarus will retaliate by weakening its border controls halting Western-bound illegal migration and drug trafficking.

"We were stopping migrants and drugs - now you will catch them and eat them yourself", he said. Those carry a prison sentence of up to 15 years, and some fear he could face more serious charges, including some that carry the death penalty.

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