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Belarus leader accuses West of "total lie," insists Ryanair jet faced bomb threat as fear mounts for detained dissident

Belarus pilot questions air traffic control
Belarus pilot questions air traffic control 02:01

Belarus' authoritarian leader Alexander Lukashenko has spoken for the first time since his country forced a Ryanair passenger jet to divert — under military escort — and to land in the capital city of Minsk, where a dissident journalist was arrested. Lukashenko called it a "total lie that the plane was forced down," insisting that Belarusian authorities had received a bomb threat from Switzerland and were only acting in the passengers' interest.

As CBS News correspondent Charlie D'Agata reports, Lukashenko came out swinging on Wednesday, three days after the incident, accusing the West of "crossing a red line," and "strangling Belarus."  

It was the kind of defiance that has come to be expected of the man nicknamed "Europe's last dictator."

Raman Pratasevich
A handout photo released on May 24, 2021, by the Belarus government press office shows Belarusian journalist Raman Pratasevich speaking to the camera in a prison in Minsk, Belarus. Belarus government press office via AP

He doubled down on his government's claims of a bomb threat, but leaders in the U.S. and Europe believe it was really a plot to arrest opposition activist and journalist Raman Pratasevich, who appeared in a government-shot video on Tuesday giving what appeared to be a forced confession.  

In a transcript released by Belarus' transport ministry, the Ryanair pilot repeatedly questions the Belarusian air traffic controller over the forced diversion.

"This recommendation to divert to Minsk, where did it come from?" the pilot asks. "Where did it come from? Company? Departure airport authorities, arrival airport authorities?"

The controller in Belarus just replies: "This is our recommendation."

In the transcript the air traffic controller tells the flight crew that the bomb threat warning was communicated to several European airports, but no other aviation authorities, airports or airlines have backed up that claim.

In his remarks on Wednesday, Lukashenko claimed specifically that the threat alert came from Swiss authorities. Asked about that claim, a representative of Switzerland's Foreign Ministry told CBS News on Wednesday that Swiss authorities were, "not aware of a bomb threat on the Ryanair Athens-Vilnius flight. There has therefore been no announcement from the Swiss authorities on this matter to the Belarusian authorities."    

The diversion took the civilian airliner well off its charted flight path to Lithuania, with a Belarusian fighter jet escorting it at least part of the way to Minsk.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen accused Belarus of using its "control over its airspace in order to perpetrate a state hijacking," and EU governments have told their airlines to avoid Belarusian air space and said they'll close their airports to flights from the country. 

Overnight, Belarusian authorities offered another video, this one showing Pratasevich's traveling companion, Sofia Sapega, who was taken into custody along with the blogger.

sofia-sapega-belarus.jpg
Sofia Sapega, a friend of Belarusian dissident journalist Raman Pratasevich, with whom she was taken into custody by Belarusian authorities in Minsk, appears in a video provided by the government of Belarus on May 25, 2021. From Belarusian government video

Apparently under duress, she confesses in the video to being the editor of an anti-government social media channel.

Friends and family now fear for both of their lives.

Pratasevich's mother Natalia released an urgent plea to world leaders.

"I am begging for help, I am begging for help," she says in the video. "Please save him, they're going to kill him in there!"

She hasn't heard anything from her son, apart from the purported confession video, since he was detained on Sunday.

Putin extends $1.5 billion lifeline to Belaru... 08:53

Lukashenko faced huge protests across Belarus last year against his decades-long rule, but he was able to see off the threat thanks to support from his ally, Russian President Vladimir Putin. As hundreds of protesters were swept up in mass-arrests, many dissidents fled to neighboring countries, including Prataseveich.

Friends and allies of the journalist in other European countries have said they've received more menacing threats this week, including death threats, since Pratasevich was taken into custody.

Russia's President Putin meets with his Belarusian counterpart Lukashenko in Sochi
Russian President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with his Belarusian counterpart Alexander Lukashenko during a meeting in Sochi, Russia, September 14, 2020, in a still image taken from video provided by the Russian president's office. Russian Presidential Executive Office/Reuters

On Wednesday, the Kremlin said Russian officials saw no reason not to trust the Belarusian government's claims of a bomb threat to the Ryanair flight.

The Kremlin also said that Lukashenko was set to meet Putin again on May 28, in the Russian city of Sochi.

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