Nearly three dozen suspected Russian mercenaries in “military-style clothing” have been detained in Belarus accused of trying to destabilize the country before the next presidential election.
State media are reporting that the 33 individuals have been taken into custody for Wagner, a private military company linked to Yevgeny Prigozhin. Prigozhin is a Russian businessman accused in the United States of running in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Wagner has deployed hundreds of contractors in conflict zones such as eastern Ukraine, Syria and Libya.
“Guests have drawn attention to themselves because they have not behaved like Russian tourists do and usually wear military-style clothing,”; the Belta news agency reported Thursday, according to Reuters.
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The suspected mercenaries, who officials said are being held on charges of plotting terrorist acts, arrived in the Belarusian capital of Minsk on July 24 and were detained Wednesday while making way for a spa.
A senior Belarusian security official also said 14 of those detained had spent time in the Donbass region of Ukraine, where Russian-backed fighters have been involved in a territorial dispute since 2014, Reuters reported.
The images they aired on state television showed the group being cluttered in their underwear, and images of an individual’s belongings included a Russian passport and military-style patches.
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko is seeking a sixth term in the August 9 election amid opposition protests controlled by public fatigue by his rule and a painful economic downturn from the coronavirus pandemic. He accused Russian forces of interfering with the next vote, but Moscow denied any involvement.
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With the capture of the suspected mercenaries, Lukashenko demanded an official explanation.
“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 were detained in Belarus and said Moscow was hoping to get more information about the incident.
“There is no information about any wrongdoing of the Russians that could have caused the detention. We know nothing about it,” said Peskov, who called the allegations “nothing but innuendo.”
Belarus Security Council Secretary Andrei Ravkov said law enforcement in the country is currently seeking more Russian contractors at its borders.
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“Up to 200 militants are on our soil,” Ravkov said Thursday. “The search continues. It’s like a needle in a haystack.”
On Thursday morning, the Belarusian Ministry of Foreign Affairs also summoned the Russian ambassador to Belarus, Dmitry Mezentsev. At the same time, presidential candidates were briefed on enhanced security at campaign events.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.