UPDATED: Belarus leader denies having known arrested blogger was on board flight

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Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko said on Wednesday that he had not known that dissident blogger Roman Protasevich was on board the flight that was diverted to Minsk but that he would have given the order to ground it had he known.

Protasevich, an exiled opposition blogger, was arrested in Minsk on Sunday after Belarus sent up a fighter jet and the flight he was on board was forced to land over a false bomb threat, sparking international outrage.

But he added that the opposition blogger whose arrest has sparked international outrage had planned to stage a “bloody rebellion” in Belarus, the TASS news agency reported.

Roman Protasevich, an exiled blogger was placed on a “terrorist” watchlist by Belarusian authorities in November. He was arrested in Minsk on Sunday after the plane he was travelling on was diverted over a false bomb threat. 

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko on Wednesday accused the West of trying to use the diversion of a Ryanair plane at the weekend to wage hybrid war against him and said it had falsely portrayed his handling of the incident.

In his first comments after what some European politicians described as a “state-sponsored hijacking” on Sunday, Lukashenko said he had acted legally and in accordance with all international norms, but that ‘ill-wishers’ were trying to use the plane episode to try to undermine his 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 parliament.

“They (the ill-wishers) have crossed many red lines and have abandoned common sense and human morals.”

Airlines re-routed flights to avoid Belarus’s airspace on Tuesday and Belarusian planes faced a possible ban from Europe, as international outrage mounted over Minsk forcing down a jetliner and arresting a dissident journalist on board.

Belarusian air control advised the Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius to divert to Minsk, according to a transcript, due to what turned out to be a hoax bomb threat. Belarus also scrambled a MiG-29 fighter jet to escort the passenger plane.

Belarusian authorities then swiftly detained Roman Protasevich, a dissident journalist who had been travelling on board the plane, along with his girlfriend. Both face criminal charges.

Lukashenko, according to Russia’s TASS news agency, said Protasevich had planned a “bloody rebellion” in Belarus.

The Western response to the plane diversion was part of a “hybrid war” against his country and he would respond harshly to any sanctions or provocations, the Belta news agency reported him as telling parliament.

Mass protests erupted against President Alexander Lukashenko last summer after he declared victory in a presidential election that his opponents said was rigged, but they lost momentum amid a sweeping crackdown by the authorities.

Exiled opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya said on Wednesday the opposition was preparing to stage a new phase of active anti-government protests in Belarus.

See also: Europe Regulator Urges Airlines To Avoid Belarus Over Safety

Photo: Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko (C) at the Palace of Independence in Minsk, Belarus. EPA-EFE/NIKOLAI PETROV / BELTA POOL

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