MOSCOW/MINSK (Reuters) - Russia demanded an explanation from Belarus on Thursday over what it said was Minsk’s wrongful arrest of a group of alleged Russian mercenaries accused of plotting acts of terrorism.
The arrests risk worsening already strained relations between Belarus and traditional ally Russia, which has scaled back economic support after becoming disenchanted with the pace of integration between the two countries.
Belarusian state television broadcast footage on Wednesday of more than 30 suspected Russian private military contractors being detained near the capital Minsk. Authorities said they had received information that over 200 fighters had entered the country to destabilise it before an Aug. 9 presidential election.
A criminal case was opened on Thursday after Belarus said it suspected “the preparation of terrorist acts”. Some of the captured men confessed to trying to orchestrate a revolution, and Russia’s ambassador was summoned to explain, officials said.
Belarusian authorities say they believe the husband of opposition presidential candidate Svetlana Tikhanouskaya may have ties to the Russian group and have launched a criminal case against him on suspicion of inciting riots, the Belta news agency reported.
Tikhanouskaya told Reuters in an interview that neither she nor Syarhei, her jailed husband, had anything to do with the alleged plot.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Moscow wanted an exhaustive explanation from Belarus about the group detained and hoped their rights would be observed fully.
“We don’t have information about any illegal activity carried out by them,” Peskov said in Moscow.
Dmitry Mezentsev, Russia’s ambassador to Belarus, said the men had been transiting Belarus en route, via Istanbul, to a third unnamed country and were not involved in any way with the domestic affairs of Belarus.
“According to information that has yet to be confirmed, the Russians may be employees of a private security company, which ... has been commissioned to guard energy infrastructure and resources abroad but certainly not in Belarus,” Mezentsev said in a statement.
Footage of the group’s arrest showed they had Sudanese currency with them.
Mezentsev said the group had been forced to extend their short stopover in Belarus because they had missed their original flight.
The Belarusian election campaign has posed the biggest challenge in years to President Alexander Lukashenko, who has allowed little dissent in over a quarter of a century in power in the country of 9.5 million between Russia and European Union member state Poland.
Authorities announced additional security measures for campaign events on Thursday. The opposition feared Lukashenko would use the alleged plot to intensify a crackdown on rivals.
Lukashenko, 65, has accused opponents of working with foreign backers to overthrow him and has jailed two of his main election rivals.
He is expected to win the election despite growing opposition and protests over concerns about the economy, human rights and his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. He portrays himself as a guarantor of economic and political stability.
Belarusian Security Council State Secretary Andrei Ravkov told reporters up to 200 mercenaries were being hunted by law enforcement agents.
Andrey Dmitriev, a presidential candidate, quoted Ravkov as saying some of the people detained had confessed to plotting “a revolution”.
They were alleged to have trained in the Russian cities of Pskov and Nevel and were mostly bombers and snipers, Dmitriev told reporters after meeting Ravkov. The authorities did not rule out shutting down internet access in Belarus, he said.
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.
Reporting by Andrei Makhovsky in Minsk, Vladimir Soldatkin, Maxim Rodionov and Tom Balmforth in Moscow; Writing by Matthias Williams/Andrew Osborn; Editing by Timothy Heritage and Andrew Cawthorne