MINSK (Reuters) - Belarus leader Alexander Lukashenko will demand an explanation from Russia after Belarusian security forces detained more than 30 alleged Russian mercenaries near Minsk, Belarussian state media reported on Wednesday.
Belarus detained the alleged mercenaries after receiving information that more than 200 fighters had entered the country to destabilise it ahead of a presidential election, the state-controlled Belta news agency said.
It said the men worked for Wagner, Russia’s best-known private military contractor. The Kremlin and the Russian Foreign Ministry did not immediately respond to requests for comment. The Russian state denies it uses mercenaries.
The Russian embassy in Minsk said the Belarussian Foreign Ministry had officially informed it of the detention of 32 Russian nationals, Russia’s Interfax news agency said, without elaborating.
Lukashenko is up for re-election on Aug. 9, and faces his biggest challenge in years as public anger swells over his handling of COVID-19, the economy and human rights.
“If these are Russian citizens ... then we must immediately contact the relevant structures of the Russian Federation so that they explain what is happening,” Lukashenko told an urgent security council meeting.
Security forces have broken up what they say are illegal protests in recent weeks. Last month, Lukashenko accused Russian and Polish forces of trying to discredit him. Russia denied the allegations.
Belta said Belarusian special forces had detained 32 Russian mercenaries in the Minsk area and another person in the south of the country.
“The guests drew attention to themselves because they did not behave like Russian tourists usually do and wore military-style clothing,” Belta reported.
The group arrived in Minsk on July 24, it said, noting that each man carried small hand luggage only, but that the group had three big heavy suitcases.
State TV showed the men being detained in their underwear and broadcast footage of one man’s belongings which included a Russian passport, military-style patches and dollar bills.
Radio Free Europe noted that other belongings captured on camera included Sudanese currency and a Sudanese phone card, suggesting the men may have been en route to Africa.
Lukashenko, 65, has accused opposition protesters of plotting to overthrow him.
Russian private military contractors have clandestinely fought in conflicts including in Syria, Ukraine and Libya, Reuters and other media have previously reported.
The Russian embassy in Minsk said it had not received any official information about the detention of Russian citizens, the RIA news agency reported.
Private military companies are illegal in Belarus.
Reporting by Andrei Makhovsky; additional reporting by Tom Balmforth; writing by Pavel Polityuk/Andrew Osborn; editing by Philippa Fletcher