Sun, 29 Nov 2020

The Belarusian state news agency BelTA has reported that '32 foreign military contractors' from the private Russian military company Vagner were detained near Minsk overnight, just days before the country's presidential election.

BelTA reported on July 29 that another suspect was detained in the south of the country.

The agency also published a list of the 33 Russian citizens, aged between 24 and 55, who had been apprehended.

President Alyaksandr Lukashenka called a meeting of the Security Council and instructed KGB security service chief Valer Vakulchyk to seek an explanation from Moscow.

"We need to urgently ask the relevant structures of the Russian Federation to explain what's going on," Lukashenka told the emergency meeting.

The Russian Embassy in Minsk said it had received from Belarus's Foreign Ministry an 'official notification of the detention of 32 Russian citizens.'

The Vagner group is a Russian paramilitary organization whose fighters have turned up in conflicts in Syria, Ukraine, and Africa. In 2018, the U.S. State Department blacklisted the group along with more than 30 other Russian companies and individuals with ties to military and intelligence agencies.

BelTA cited sources at law enforcement agencies as saying more than 200 Russian military contractors had arrived in Belarus on July 24 to 'destabilize the situation in the country ahead of the election" on August 9.

The news agency reported that the detainees' behavior was 'uncharacteristic for Russian tourists' because they didn't drink alcohol and their 'uniform military-style clothing' drew attention.

State-run Belarus-1 television channel showed video footage it said was taken during the detainment of the suspects.

The footage showed several Russian passports that allegedly belonged to the detained men, as well as stacks of U.S. dollar bills, packets of condoms, and pieces of paper with Arabic script.

Other belongings captured on camera included Sudanese currency and a Sudanese phone card, suggesting the men may have been en route to or from the African country:

The Vagner group is known to operate in Sudan as well as in neighboring Libya.

Investigative Committee spokesman Syarhey Kabakovich told RFE/RL that 'everything will be reported by official channels.'

A spokeswoman for the Interior Ministry, Volha Chamadanava, told RFE/RL that she had no information on the situation, while the press service of the Committee of State Security (KGB) did not respond to phone calls from RFE/RL.

Lukashenka has faced mounting public opposition in recent months after 26 years in power, in part from public discontent over the government's handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

In addition, hundreds of people, including activists and bloggers, have been arrested as the government has cracked down hard on rallies and demonstrations supporting opposition candidates who were not registered by election officials.

Lukashenka had said that unnamed forces might use trained fighters from unspecified foreign private military companies -- which are illegal in Belarus -- to foment a revolution in Belarus that would be similar to how pro-European demonstrations in neighboring Ukraine toppled pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych in 2014.

'They will be professional military fighters, bandits, who are specially trained, mainly at private military companies all around the world and make big money in these or those countries,' Lukashenka has said.

With reporting by BelTA and Belarus-1

Copyright (c) 2018. RFE/RL, Inc. Republished with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave NW, Ste 400, Washington DC 20036

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