Belarus has accused 33 mercenaries from Russia of plotting a terror attack ahead of the Presidential elections to destabilize the country. The Russian mercenaries were detained near Minsk as Belarus’ security council continues to search for 200 more mercenaries.
According to reports, Belarus has claimed the men are mercenaries employed by the Russian private military company Wagner, which has been tied to an ally of Vladimir Putin and has fought in armed conflict in Ukraine, Syria and countries in Africa.
The head of Belarus’ security council has said they are searching for another 200 Russian mercenaries whom they have accused of being sent to prepare “terrorist attacks”. “We are searching for them,” said Andrei Ravkov, the head of the country’s security council. “But it’s like a needle in a haystack.”
The ‘capture’ of the Russian mercenaries comes a week after Alexander Lukashenko, the country’s president for the past 25 years, claimed last week that Russian mercenaries could be sent to the country to organise a “Maidan”, a reference to the 2014 Ukrainian revolution that overthrew the then-president, Viktor Yanukovych.
Belarus summoned the Russian ambassador “to provide substantive explanations regarding the goals and other aspects of the arrival and presence in our country of the said organised group, numerous members of which have a proven record of involvement in armed conflicts”, the Belarusian foreign ministry said.
Belarus also summoned the ambassador of Ukraine, which has said it will demand the extradition of the men for fighting alongside pro-Russian forces in east Ukraine. The extradition would mark a considerable escalation with Russia.
The Belarusian elections commission summoned all the presidential candidates to an emergency meeting on Thursday morning, sparking fears that the arrest of the mercenaries could serve as a pretext for delaying the 9 August vote.
The Presidential elections of Belarus are the competitive presidential elections in decades. Lukashenko is facing one of the toughest challenges to his rule during his 25 years in power. The crisis has been triggered by many factors, including a slowing economy and Lukashenko’s own dismissive remarks about the coronavirus pandemic.
Rusia Demands Explanation
The accusation by Belarus has not gone down well with Russia. Moscow has demanded an explanation from Belarus over what it said was Minsk’s wrongful arrest of a group of alleged Russian mercenaries accused of plotting acts of terrorism.
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.
Mezentsev said the group had been forced to extend their short stopover in Belarus because they had missed their original flight.
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.