Nearly three dozen suspected Russian mercenaries in “military clothing” have been detained in Belarus, accused of trying to destabilize the country ahead of the upcoming presidential election.
State media report that 33 individuals detained work for the private military company Wagner affiliated with Yevgeny Prigozhin. Prigozhin is a Russian businessman accused in the United States of America of participating in the US presidential election in 2016. Wagner has deployed hundreds of suppliers to conflict zones such as eastern Ukraine, Syria and Libya.
“The guests drew attention to themselves because they did not behave as Russian tourists would normally dress in military clothes,”; Reuters reported.
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Suspected mercenaries, according to officials on arrest on charges of terrorist attacks, arrived in the Belarusian capital in Minsk on July 24 and were detained on Wednesday while searching for a spa.
Belarus’s senior security official also said 14 detainees had spent time in Ukraine’s Donbass region, where Russian fighters have been involved in a territorial dispute since 2014, Reuters reported.
Images allegedly broadcast on state television show that the group was rounded up in underwear, and images of one person’s items included a Russian passport and military-style patches.
In the August 9 election, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko is running for a sixth term as opposition protests sparked by public fatigue from his government and a painful economic downturn from the coronavirus pandemic. He accused Russian forces of interfering in the upcoming vote, but Moscow refused to take part.
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Lukashenko asked for an official explanation after the capture of 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 on Thursday that 33 Russian citizens had been detained in Belarus and said Moscow hoped to learn more about the incident.
“There is no information about any violation of the Russians that could have caused detention. We don’t know anything about that, “Peskov said, calling the accusations” nothing but a hint. “
However, Andrei Ravkov, secretary of the Security Council of Belarus, said that law enforcement was currently looking for more Russian suppliers at its borders.
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“There are up to 200 fighters on our soil,” Ravkov said on Thursday. “The search continues. It’s like a needle in a haystack. “
On Thursday morning, the Belarusian Ministry of Foreign Affairs also convened the Russian Ambassador to Belarus, Dmitry Mezentsev. At the same time, the presidential candidates were informed about the stricter security at the campaign events.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.