This satellite image from Maxar Technologies shows a Beriev A-50 early warning aircraft, center, at Machulishchy Air Base near Minsk, Belarus, Tuesday Feb. 28, 2023. AP
President Alexander Lukashenko said a Beriev A-50 parked at the Machulishchy Air Base near Minsk was attacked on Feb. 26. It was the first official acknowledgement of the incident, which Belarusian opposition activists first reported last week.
Belarusian guerrillas from the Association of Security Forces of Belarus claimed responsibility for the attack last week, saying the group, also known as BYPOL, used two armed drones to damage the early warning aircraft known for its distinctive “rotodome” above the fuselage.
Both Russia and India's air forces have A-50s in service. About 40 of the planes have been built.
Lukashenko said Belarusian security forces detained the suspects and that the main one allegedly has ties to Ukrainian security services.
The Belarusian leader accused Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Ukraine’s Security Service and the CIA of plotting the attack on the plane.
Ukraine and guerrilla activists in Belarus rejected the accusation.
In a tweet, Ukraine’s presidential advisor Mykhailo Podolyak described the attack as “an anti-terrorist act carried out, by the way, by local partisans.”
Ukrainian Foreign Ministry spokesman Oleg Nikolenko said the ministry “categorically” denies Kyiv's involvement, calling Lukashenko's claims “another attempt at creating an artificial threat from Ukraine to justify his support of Russia's aggression.”
Belarusian authorities did not comment on the incident before Tuesday, but Lukashenko held a meeting with military and security officials shortly after it was reported.
He urged them to strengthen discipline in the ranks and to stand ready to quickly respond to any sign of aggression along Belarus' 1,000-kilometer border with Ukraine.
Lukashenko insisted Tuesday that the aircraft “hasn't suffered any significant damage, aside from, as they say, scratches and a hole in the body (of the plane), which doesn't hinder a war plane from carrying out its duties."
He said he had asked Moscow to supply him with the plane “for control along the perimeter of our Belarusian border." Following the attack, Belarusian authorities “asked the Russians to take this plane for maintenance works and send another one to us.” Lukashendo added. "And that is what happened.”
Russia has used the territory of its ally Belarus to invade Ukraine a year ago. Belarus has continued to host a contingent of Russian troops, warplanes and other weapons, including the A-50 plane that
While hailing the importance of his country's defense cooperation with Russia and expressing support for the Kremlin’s action in Ukraine, Lukashenko has emphasized that he would only send troops into Ukraine if Belarus were attacked.
The Belarusian president alleged that “hundreds, if not thousands” of security and military operatives were involved in chasing the drone operator, and they managed to detain more than 20 of his accomplices.
Lukashenko said the main suspect was an IT specialist with Russian and Ukrainian passports who was born in the Ukrainian city of Kryvyi Rih and lived in Crimea, which Russia seized from Ukraine in 2014.
In a Tuesday interview with The Associated Press, BYPOL leader Aliaksandr Azarau rejected Lukashenko's account of the attack and its aftermath.
“We are not familiar with the person Lukashenko talked about,” Azarau said. “There has been no coordination with the Ukrainians during this operation.”
Those involved in the attack are Belarusian citizens who all “have departed abroad and are safe,” the activist said. He refused to disclose how many people were involved.
Azarau said Belarusian authorities have carried out mass arrests of demonstrators, drone owners and residents of the Machulishchy area.
The BYPOL project was founded after mass protests in Belarus in 2020, with former military forming its core, and created an underground network of anti-government activists.
According to Azarau, this network, dubbed Peramoha, “Victory” in Belarusian, has some 200,000 participants, and two-thirds of them remain in Belarus.
“Lukashenko has something to be afraid of,” Azarau said.