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26 May 2021, 11:21

Lukashenko comments on Athens-Vilnius flight incident

MINSK, 26 May (BelTA) - Belarus President Aleksandr Lukashenko commented on the incident with the Ryanair plane as he met with MPs, members of the Constitutional Commission and representatives of the government bodies on 26 May, BelTA has learned.

“How were we supposed to act, especially given a recent spate of bomb threats in our country? You live in Belarus and you are well aware that we deal, almost on a daily basis, with fake bomb threats targeting our schools, universities, companies and planes that come from IP addresses in Poland, Lithuania and Latvia. In each case we responded adequately,” said Aleksandr Lukashenko.

In the case with the Athens-Vilnius flight a bomb threat came from abroad - from Switzerland, the president said. The message was sent to the airports of Athens, Vilnius and Minsk simultaneously. Belarus promptly communicated the information to the crew of the plane in accordance with international rules. “At that moment the plane had crossed the Belarusian border and was in our airspace. We informed the pilots of the plane and had to publish this information later. Was it Hamas or not does not matter today. The crew had time to make a decision. We had 123 passengers from various countries and six crew members in danger. The Belarusian nuclear power plant is located close to the flight route. The plane made a U-turn near this area. What if something went wrong? Do we need another Chernobyl here? How would the United States respond in such a situation, given its sad experience?” the head of the state asked a rhetorical question.

“It is not just and not so much about this fighter jet which we scrambled according to all the rules. On my order, all the nuclear plant protection systems, including the air defense, were instantly put on full alert. My post requires me to protect people. I was thinking about the safety of the country. I ask you to understand one simple thing: if the plane had a bomb and the terrorists intended to blow it up, we would not have been able to do anything about it. But I could not allow the plane to fall on our people's heads. We remember well the recent plane crash when two pilots died steering the plane away from residential areas. Do not blame me. I acted in line with the law, protecting my people. And I will continue to do so,” the Belarusian leader stressed.

Aleksandr Lukashenko pointed out that there is only one way to act in such emergencies: land the aircraft immediately and rescue the people. “We acted in strict compliance with the aviation safety rules. This is recognized by specialists and experts. A decision to land the plane was not ours though. According to all the rules and instructions, the decision is made by the pilot-in-command, and we offered our help. The pilot-in-command spent a quarter of an hour thinking about it, consulting with the owners (we know it) and with personnel of the Vilnius airport. Let them publish the data. It is not our job to publish it after all. Can you imagine he spent 15 minutes (maybe even more) making phone calls and seeking consult in such a situation?” the president said.

The head of state still called the actions of the pilots illogical. After hesitation and lengthy consultations they chose Minsk although Vilnius was only 70 kilometers away. According to the president, the Belarusian side did not expect that the plane would decide to U-turn. “Now is the main question: why did no one want to receive the plane? Neither Vilnius, where it was heading, nor Warsaw, nor Lvov or Kiev, when we reported the bomb scare. Why didn't those, who are now lamenting, receive the plane? Were they afraid of the responsibility? Or did someone really need it to land in Minsk?” the president asked.

Belarus is accused of sending a fighter jet in order to allegedly force the passenger plane to land. Aleksandr Lukashenko dismissed the insinuations as an absolute lie. The MIG-29 was scrambled in accordance with the established procedure of the air defense forces and in order to ensure the safety of the flight. “It had to make sure that the aircraft with possible explosives on board (that was how we perceived it until we examined it) stayed on course. If something went wrong, the MIG-29 should have given the coordinates to our rescuers (helicopters first of all), who should have instantly arrived at the crash site. More importantly, this jet should have provided communication between the aircraft and the air traffic controllers if necessary. In case of any problems with landing, the jet was instructed to lead the plane to the Minsk airport runway,” the head of state said.

Aleksandr Lukashenko added that the Belarusian fighter jet was scrambled after the passenger plane decided to land in Minsk and turned towards the Belarusian capital. “They should have thanked us for that. We had to do what we did to ensure safety in the air and most importantly on the ground. We did everything we could to save people,” he stressed.

“In this very case, I assess the actions of my military personnel, my subordinates as super-professional. They did really well. They were selected by me after I received a report from the air force and air defense control,” the president said.

After the plane landed, several passengers decided to get off in Minsk, as their final destination was the Belarusian capital. A number of media outlets branded them as KGB officers. According to Aleksandr Lukashenko, these citizens were found and asked to present the true version of the events. “If anyone wants to know whether we have substituted them or not, you are welcome. We understand perfectly well their faces have been recorded by CCTV cameras, there are documents and passports on their hands. It is impossible to substitute them,” said Aleksandr Lukashenko.

Roman Protasevich, who was on the international wanted list, was among the passengers on board the plane. He is charged with organizing riots and group activities violating public order. A criminal case has been opened against him for committing deliberate acts to incite social hatred on the basis of professional affiliation.

“Let his many Western defenders now answer the question: what secret services did this man work for? Not only him but also his accomplice. His Western defenders must answer the question: who paid him to participate in the war in Donbass? This is probably what they fear most of all, this is why they have mounted this campaign. Here in Belarus he and his accomplices were going to arrange bloody riots, too,” the head of state said.

The president said that he had long ago warned his opponents, including those in self-exile abroad, that everyone would answer for their crimes in accordance with the law. “We know all of you. Bringing you to justice is a matter of time. Believe me, whatever pressure we are under, we will talk to the terrorists in the same language the world talks to them,” he said.

Aleksandr Lukashenko recalled that in 2016 the Ukrainian authorities forced a Belarusian plane to U-turn threating to scramble fighter jets as they wanted to take an Armenian citizen off the plane. Europe had no reaction then “though Ukraine demonstrated a purposeful intent, involvement of the secret services, and issued threats to scramble fighter jets,” the head of state said.

The president also dwelt on the speculations that after landing in Minsk the crew and passengers were held by armed men for a long time. “The fact that the plane took off only at nine o'clock in the evening and not immediately after the inspection is a question for the crew and the pilot-in-command, who did not want to leave the airport for seven hours after the security checks were completed. He kept calling and consulting with someone,” he said.

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