Belarus opposition leader hails world support after journalist arrest


VILNIUS (Reuters) – Belarus opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya on Saturday hailed support from around the world after Minsk scrambled a warplane to intercept a flight and arrested a dissident journalist on board.

Belarus has been subject to EU and U.S. sanctions since President Alexander Lukashenko cracked down on pro-democracy protests after a disputed election last year.

But his decision to intercept an international airliner in Belarusian airspace and arrest the 26-year-old has brought threats of more serious action. Most European countries told their aircraft to avoid Belarus airspace and banned Belarus carriers from their skies.

“I am very touched by the support I see in Lithuania and all around the world,” Tsikhanouskaya told reporters, standing among a few hundred exiles in a square in Lithuania’s capital Vilnius.

The protesters were holding pictures of the detained blogger Roman Protasevich and his girlfriend Sofia Sapega, a Russian citizen who was also arrested.

Lithuania has sheltered hundreds of Belarusians who it says risked detention in their country after the presidential election, including Tsikhanouskaya.

“I hope we win this year. I want to come back. I want to be home,” a woman at the protest told Reuters, bursting into tears.

Holding a “Europe Act Now” placard, she declined to give her name as she said it would be dangerous to her family and friends back in Belarus.

Lukashenko said on Wednesday the journalist had been plotting a rebellion, and he accused the West of waging a hybrid war against him.

Protasevich has been shown on state TV confessing to organising demonstrations. But Belarus opposition figures have dismissed that, saying it is evidence he has been tortured.

Russia has showed its longstanding ally support in this latest standoff with the West, with Lukashenko holding a second day of talks with President Vladimir Putin on Saturday. Russia confirmed it would move ahead with a second $500 million loan to Belarus next month.

(Reporting by Andrius Sytas in Vilnius; Editing by Alison Williams)

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