Belarusian leader meets Vladimir Putin carrying briefcase of documents that he says justify flight 'hijack'

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Vladimir Putin with Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko during a meeting in Sochi  -  Universal News And Sport (Scotland)/ UNPIXS (EUROPE)
Vladimir Putin with Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko during a meeting in Sochi - Universal News And Sport (Scotland)/ UNPIXS (EUROPE)

Alexander Lukashenko on Friday pressed a briefcase of mysterious documents onto Vladimir Putin, saying it contained everything he needed to know about what “really happened” with the forced landing of Ryanair flight in Minsk.

The Belarusian dictator reached beside his chair for the briefcase at a meeting with the Russian president in the Black Sea resort of Sochi.

“I have taken some documents to show to you so that you understand what really happened,” he said, offering it to Mr Putin who looked on.

Belarus scrambled a fighter jet to force an Athens-Vilnius flight to land in the Belarusian capital on Sunday, falsely telling its pilot of a bomb threat on board the plane.

When the flight landed, authorities arrested a dissident journalist, Roman Protasevich, and his girlfriend. European countries have since barred the Belarusian national air carrier from entering their airspace amid a fierce row over the highjacking.

Before getting down to business Mr Putin and Mr Lukashenko joked about enjoying a swim in the nearby sea - with the Russian leader saying a dip in the Black Sea would bring out good results for the talks.

But the purpose of the trip for Mr Lukashenko was to secure the backing of his key ally against the Western nations who have issued sanctions and flight bans.

The meeting was held amid growing pressure on Mr Putin to arrange the release of Sofia Sapega, Mr Protasevich’s girlfriend, who is seen as a bystander caught in the cross-fire of Mr Lukashenko’s all-out war with the opposition.

In the briefcase, Mr Lukashenko said, was information on “what kind of people they are”, an apparent reference to Mr Protasevich and his partner.

Both have appeared in what seem to be forced confession videos released by the Belarusian state.

The meeting in Sochi stretched into late evening, and no public remarks about Ms Sapega were released.

Russian air control on Thursday had refused to admit an Air France plane that skirted Belarusian airspace but on Friday planes taking similar evasive measures were permitted entry.

Mr Putin spoke warmly of the two countries’ ongoing efforts to expand their economic and political cooperation within the framework of a union state, but added little detail.

On Friday the White House said it would re-impose sanctions on nine Belarusian state-owned businesses .

Earlier on Friday, the EU publicly pledged to provide Belarus with €3 billion (£2.6 billion) in grants and loans as soon as the country “changes course” and “transitions” to democracy, implying Mr Lukashenko’s potential resignation.

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the Belarusian opposition leader in exile, thanked the EU for the pledge, hailing it as a “true message of hope and support for the Belarusian people.”

Meanwhile, about 500 Belarusian farm workers recruited under a Government visa scheme to help Britain bring in its summer harvest are trapped in Belarus by the flight hijack crisis, it has emerged.

The Belarusian workers, who are desperate for hard cash for their families, are struggling to get to the UK after the ban on direct flights has forced them to look to neighbouring states to fly out.

Ukraine closed its border to flights from Belarus on Wednesday, limiting their options primarily to Russia because most of the workers are from the rural east of the country.

Belarusian dog handler checks luggage from the Ryanair flight in Minsk shortly before Roman Protasevich and his girlfriend were arrested - ONLINER.BY/AFP via Getty Images
Belarusian dog handler checks luggage from the Ryanair flight in Minsk shortly before Roman Protasevich and his girlfriend were arrested - ONLINER.BY/AFP via Getty Images

For some, it could be too expensive or too difficult. About 150 have already come to the UK, before the crisis broke, but a further 500 are lined up for jobs in the UK and have visas entitling them to leave Belarus and enter Britain.

They are among 30,000 foreign workers being recruited by UK-based farming job agencies from countries including Belarus and Russia to come quarantine-free to the UK, despite both nations being under international sanctions.

Ministers decided not to re-start last year’s Pick for Britain campaign to recruit UK workers on furlough despite having spent at least £58 billion protecting 11.4 million UK jobs.

They have instead expanded the agricultural worker scheme from 10,000 last year to 30,000 with more recruits from Belarus and Russia where the economies are so crippled that recruitment agencies are receiving up to five applications for every UK farm vacancy.

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