MINSK – Belarus said it suspected a group of alleged Russian mercenaries of plotting “acts of terrorism” ahead of a presidential election in August and summoned Russia’s ambassador on Thursday for an explanation.
State TV on Wednesday broadcast footage of more than 30 suspected Russian private military contractors being detained near Minsk after authorities said they had received information that more than 200 fighters had entered the country to destabilize it ahead of the Aug. 9 election.
Belarus opened an investigation on Thursday into “the preparation of terrorist acts” and said that some of the captured men had already confessed to attempting to orchestrate a revolution.
Minsk’s handling of the situation risks worsening already strained relations with traditional ally Russia, which has so far yet to set out its own position.
The detentions are the latest twist in an election campaign that has posed the biggest challenge in years to President Alexander Lukashenko who has ruled the east European country with an iron fist for over a quarter of a century.
Authorities on Thursday announced additional security measures for campaign events amid fears among the opposition that Lukashenko might use the alleged plot to intensify a crackdown on rivals.
Lukashenko, 65, has accused opponents of being in cahoots with foreign backers to overthrow him and has jailed two of his main election rivals ahead of the election, which he is expected to win despite growing opposition to his rule.
Belarusian Security Council State Secretary Andrei Ravkov told reporters that up to 200 mercenaries were still in Belarus and being hunted by law enforcement agents
Andrey Dmitriev, a presidential candidate, quoted Ravkov as saying that some of the mercenaries had already confessed to plotting “a revolution”.
They were trained in the Russian cities of Pskov and Nevel and were mostly bombers and snipers, Dmitriev told reporters after meeting Ravkov.
“We were told that today there are 170 militants in the country, which we already know, trained in subversion and sniper activities,” Dmitriev said. The authorities did not rule out shutting down internet access in the country, he said.
State media have reported that the detained men worked for Wagner, Russia’s best-known private military contractor. The Kremlin, the Russian Foreign Ministry and a business reportedly affiliated with Wagner have not commented. The Russian state denies it uses mercenaries.
Footage of the men’s belongings filmed during their arrest showed Sudanese currency and a Sudanese phone card. That prompted some experts to suggest the men may have been transiting via Minsk en route to Africa.
A former collective farm manager, Lukashenko is under pressure from critics over what they say is his irresponsible handling of COVID-19 and the economy and alleged human rights abuses.
He says he has delivered years of economic and political stability and that the state covers many of people’s core needs just as it did in the Soviet era. A senior Belarusian security official has said that 14 of the alleged mercenaries had spent time in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine, where Ukrainian troops have fought Russian-backed fighters in a conflict since 2014.
Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry said Kyiv would consider extraditing the suspected Russian mercenaries. Belarus and Ukraine agreed to beef up their border controls in the wake of the detentions.
After weeks of rare and sustained street protests, the opposition has rallied around Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the wife of one of the jailed election candidates, who took her husband’s place after his arrest.
She told reporters on Thursday she would press on with her campaign.