About three dozen suspected Russian mercenaries in “military-style clothing” have been detained in Belarus on charges of trying to destabilize the country ahead of the upcoming presidential election.
State media report that 33 detainees work for Wagner’s private military association linked to Yevhen Prigogine. Prigogine is a Russian businessman accused in the United States of interfering in the 2016 presidential election. Wagner has deployed hundreds of contractors in conflict zones such as eastern Ukraine, Syria and Libya.
“The guests drew attention because they did not behave as Russian tourists usually do and wore military-style clothing,”; Belta reported on Thursday, according to Reuters.
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The suspected mercenaries, whom officials say are being detained on charges of terrorist acts, arrived in the Belarusian capital, Minsk, on July 24 and were detained on Wednesday while searching for the resort.
A senior Belarusian security official also said that 14 of the detainees had spent time in the Donbas region of Ukraine, where militants who support Russia have been involved in the territorial dispute since 2014, according to Reuters.
State television images show the group rounded off in underwear, and images of one person’s belongings included a Russian passport and military-style patches.
President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko is running for a sixth term in the August 9 election amid opposition protests sparked by public fatigue during his rule and the painful economic consequences of the coronavirus pandemic. He accused Russian forces of interfering in the upcoming vote, but Moscow denied any involvement.
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Lukashenko demanded an official explanation with admiration for the suspected mercenaries.
“It is necessary to immediately ask the relevant Russian structures to explain what is happening,” Lukashenko said.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov confirmed that 33 Russian citizens had been detained in Belarus, and said that Moscow hoped to get more information about the incident.
“There is no information about any Russian offenses that could lead to detention. We don’t know anything about it, “Peskov said, calling the accusation” nothing but hatred. “
But Secretary of the Security Council of Belarus Andrei Ravkov said that the country’s law enforcement agencies are now looking for more Russian contractors within their borders.
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“Up to 200 militants are on our soil,” Ravkov said on Thursday. “The search continues. It’s like a needle in a haystack.”
On Thursday morning, the Belarusian Foreign Ministry also summoned Russian Ambassador to Belarus Dmitry Mezentsev. At the same time, presidential candidates were informed about increased security during the election campaign.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.