Belarusian authorities say they have detained 32 Russian members of the private military company Vagner who were allegedly plotting to “destabilize” the country ahead of a presidential election on August 9.
State news agency BelTA reported on July 29 that security forces detained 32 foreign members of the Vagner Group at a health resort near Minsk overnight, after receiving information that more than 200 Russian military contractors had arrived in Belarus on July 24 to "destabilize the situation in the country ahead of the election.”
Another suspect was detained in the south of the country, according to BelTA, which also published a list of the 33 Russian citizens, aged between 24 and 55, who had been apprehended.
President Alyaksandr Lukashenka accused Russia of “dirty intentions” 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,” he said at a security meeting.
The Russian Embassy in Minsk said it had received notification from Belarus's Foreign Ministry about the detention of its citizens.
The Vagner Group is a Russian paramilitary organization believed to be run by Yevgeny Prigozhin, an influential Russian businessman close to President Vladimir Putin. Its fighters have turned up in conflicts in Syria, Libya, 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 reported that the detainees’ behavior was "uncharacteristic for Russian tourists" because they didn't drink alcohol and their "uniform military-style clothing" drew attention.
The 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.
Unlike Russia, Belarus has kept its borders open during the coronavirus pandemic and operates flights as usual.
Moscow is Minsk's closest political and economic ally, but Lukashenka has repeatedly accused Russia of trying to force Belarus to abandon its independence.
The arrests push tensions between the neighbors to a new high, with some observers seeing the move as a stunt by the 65-year-old Belarusian leader, who is seeking a sixth term in the upcoming polls.
The Vagner group is known to operate in Sudan, as well as in neighboring Libya.
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.
Despite the crackdown, Lukashenka faces one of his biggest challenges yet from an energetic opposition that has rallied around 37-year-old Svetlana Tikhanouskaya.
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.