MINSK (Reuters) - Belarus leader Alexander Lukashenko said he would demand an explanation from Russia after Belarusian security forces detained more than 30 suspected Russian mercenaries near Minsk, Belarusian state media reported on Wednesday.
The state-controlled Belta news agency said Belarus had detained the suspected mercenaries after receiving information that more than 200 fighters had entered the country to destabilise it ahead of a presidential election.
It said the men worked for Wagner, Russia’s best-known private military contractor. The Kremlin, the Russian Foreign Ministry and a business reportedly affiliated with Wagner did not immediately respond to requests for comment. The Russian state denies it uses mercenaries.
A senior Belarusian security official said 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.
Lukashenko, 65, has ruled Belarus since 1994. He 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. Lukashenko has accused protesters of plotting to overthrow him and last month, accused Russian and Polish forces of trying to discredit him. Russia denied the allegations.
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.
Following the announcement on Wednesday, Belarus pledged to beef up border security with Russia and Lukashenko ordered tighter control over public events, Belta said.
Maria Kolesnikova, a representative of one of the opposition candidates, said the detention of the alleged mercenaries could be a precursor to Lukashenko banning mass events.
On Wednesday, the Belarusian authorities also detained Vitaly Shkliarov, a political consultant who worked for the Russian liberal opposition candidate Ksenia Sobchak.
Belta said Belarusian special forces had detained the 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, and were detained scoping out a spa resort near the capital.
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.
Security Council State Secretary Andrei Ravkov said that given the suspected Donbass links to the mercenaries, the authorities in Minsk would invite both the Ukrainian and Russian ambassadors for talks about the detentions.
Belarus and Russia are traditional allies, but ties have been under strain including over Lukashenko’s refusal to endorse Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula in 2014 and Moscow’s calls for an economic and political union with Belarus.
Russian private military contractors have fought clandestinely in conflicts including in Syria, Ukraine and Libya, Reuters and other media have previously reported.
Wagner private military contractors use a defence ministry base in southern Russia containing barracks that were built by a company linked to businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin, Reuters reported last year. Prigozhin has denied any links to Wagner.
Reuters sought comment on the allegations from Belarus from Concord Management and Consulting, Prigozhin’s main business. It did not immediately respond.
Reporting by Andrei Makhovsky; additional reporting by Tom Balmforth and Polina Ivanova; writing by Pavel Polityuk/Andrew Osborn/Matthias Williams; editing by Philippa Fletcher