Belarus leader says alleged foreign-backed plots thwarted

KYIV, Ukraine — Belarus’ authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko claimed Friday that his government has thwarted a series of purported Western-backed plots, and ordered the border with Ukraine fully closed over alleged weapons smuggling.

Lukashenko claimed that Western-backed saboteurs had allegedly plotted to blow up a Russian military communications facility in Vileyka, 100 kilometers (60 miles) northwest of the Belarusian capital of Minsk, but their plans were derailed by the Belarusian authorities. He said that he discussed the purported plot with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Lukashenko, who has faced months of domestic protests against his rule, also claimed that his foes were allegedly planning to commit acts of arson and purportedly to mutilate or kill a pro-government TV journalist. He claimed that weapons and other materials for the alleged acts of sabotage were smuggled in from Ukraine.

Lukashenko, 66, charged that Germany, the United States, Ukraine, Poland and Lithuania were involved in the plot. He didn’t provide any substantiation for that claim, but said he’d give details later.

Belarus has been shaken by protests fueled by Lukashenko’s reelection to a sixth term in an August 2020 election that was widely seen as rigged. Authorities responded to the demonstrations with a massive crackdown that saw more than 35,000 people arrested and thousands beaten by police.

Lukashenko, who has ruled the ex-Soviet nation of 9.5 million with an iron fist for 27 years, has repeatedly accused the West of fomenting the protests and harboring plots to oust him.

Lukashenko’s statement followed a set of new bruising sanctions the EU slapped on Belarus over last month’s diversion of a passenger jet to arrest a dissident journalist. The sanctions announced last week target the country’s top export items, including potash — a common fertilizer ingredient, petroleum products and tobacco industry exports.

Ukraine has joined the West in strongly criticizing Belarusian authorities over the May 23 incident when they diverted a Ryanair flight from Greece to Lithuania and ordered it to land in Minsk where journalist Raman Pratasevich and his Russian girlfriend were arrested. Ukrainian authorities have also joined some of the EU sanctions, cutting air links with Belarus after the flight’s diversion.

Lukashenko on Friday charged that the border with Ukraine has become a conduit for weapons being smuggled into Belarus for use in the alleged sabotage plots.

“An enormous amount of weapons flows to Belarus from Ukraine,” he said in a speech televised live. “That is why I have ordered the border guards to fully close the border with Ukraine.”

Lukashenko charged that another alleged plot envisaged setting forestry equipment on fire in a show of strength.

“The goal was to set fire to a column of lumber vehicles at night and post images on the Web to show: ‘We are alive and fighting to oust that regime,’” Lukashenko said, adding that a woman accused of involvement in the plot was arrested on June 8.

Yet another alleged plot was to kidnap a pro-government TV journalist, Grigory Azarenok, drive him to a forest and cut his tongue with scissors, Lukashenko claimed. He said a suspect who allegedly tried to abduct the journalist was arrested Thursday.