Belarus has arrested 33 men it claims are Russian mercenaries sent to “destabilise the situation” ahead of next week’s presidential election.
The move, reported by state news agency Belta on Wednesday, comes as President Alexander Lukashenko faces his toughest re-election contest in his 26 years running the small former Soviet state, which has raised tensions with Belarus’s longtime patrons in Moscow.
Belta cited law enforcement officials as saying they had learned 200 fighters had been sent to Belarus and 32 of them had checked into a hotel in Minsk last week with only small hand luggage, then moved to a sanatorium outside the capital.
The men gave themselves away to sanatorium staff with their three heavy suitcases for the entire group, which required several of them to transport, as well as their military fatigues and “atypical behaviour for Russian tourists,” according to Belta.
“They did not drink alcohol or visit entertainment facilities and kept to themselves in an attempt to keep a low profile,” the agency said. Another man was arrested in southern Belarus, it added.
The Kremlin denies any link to Wagner Group, which conducts mercenary activities in war zones such as Libya, Syria, and eastern Ukraine in apparent alignment with Russia’s foreign policy goals. Russia’s embassy said it had been given no information about the arrested men.
Zakhar Prilepin, a Russian novelist who previously led a mercenary battalion fighting for the Kremlin-run breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine, told website Ura.ru that “two or three” of the arrested men had previously served in his unit, but were using Minsk as a base for travel to conflict zones due to Belarus’s porous border regime with Russia and lack of coronavirus-related flight restrictions.
“Dozens, if not hundreds, of people work as mercenaries and take part in military conflicts,” Mr Prilepin said.
Mr Lukashenko’s refusal to impose a lockdown to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus has resulted in more than 67,000 confirmed Covid-19 cases in the country of 10m. Despite admitting on Tuesday that he had contracted the disease himself, Mr Lukashenko called worries over the coronavirus a “psychosis” after previously suggesting it could be cured by drinking vodka, riding a tractor or visiting a sauna.
Frustration with Mr Lukashenko’s attitude to the pandemic has led to a groundswell of support for housewife Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who has started campaigning herself after her husband and another top candidate were jailed and barred from running.
Ms Tikhanovskaya’s rallies have attracted thousands of supporters in small towns across Belarus, an unexpected display of support in the tightly controlled country. Police have detained more than 250 of them in recent weeks, while state television showed footage of riot police training to put down larger demonstrations.
Mr Lukashenko, 65, claims that “foreign puppetmasters” are backing his opponents and said this week that protesters against him were being led by “professional soldiers, bandits who are specially trained in mercenary companies all over the world and make lots of money doing provocations” to create “managed chaos” in countries such as Libya, Iraq and Syria.
On Tuesday, at his fourth visit to a military base in two weeks, Mr Lukashenko told soldiers that “what you and I should be worried about is not allowing the situation in our country to be destabilised,” according to Belta.
Though state polls suggest 72 per cent of Belarusians support Mr Lukashenko, discontent echoes that of 2010, when the EU sanctioned Belarus for a violent crackdown on protesters contesting a presidential election held that year.
Though relations with the EU have thawed since most of the sanctions were lifted in 2016, ties with Moscow have soured as Mr Lukashenko resisted Russian president Vladimir Putin’s drive for deeper integration.
Mr Lukashenko responded by resuming a long-stalled flirtation with the US and EU, who he said could help Belarus reduce its dependence on Russia’s oil.
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