Shock, awe, and disbelief. Even in Belarus, where rights activists say President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has employed brutal tactics to quash opponents and maintain power for a quarter-century, a fresh claim that a death squad that eliminated perceived foes of the authoritarian leader two decades ago have led jaws to drop.
The allegations were made by Yury Harauski to the state-funded German broadcaster Deutsche Welle in a documentary released on December 16.
Harauski said that he had been part of a secretive Interior Ministry force that in 1999 kidnapped and killed opposition leader Viktar Hanchar, businessman Anatol Krasouski, and former Interior Minister Yury Zakharanka.
Many had long suspected that Hanchar, Krasouski, and Zakharanka – whose disappearances have persisted as a particularly striking stain on the reputation of Lukashenka, sometimes called Europe's last dictator – were killed. But 20 years later, Harauski's assertions are the most detailed alleged account of their fate to emerge so far.
Reaction to the chilling claims has been mixed.
A former superior whom Harauski fingered as having recruited him has dismissed the allegations as nonsense. Some former soldiers have accused him of doing it for money, though they have provided no evidence.
A former top Interior Ministry official asserted that it was all timed to discredit Lukashenka ahead of talks on December 20 with Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose pressure on Minsk for closer integration with Moscow is causing concerns among many Belarusians inside and outside the government about a potential loss of sovereignty to their nation's huge neighbor.
The allegations come at a sensitive time for Lukashenka, who has sought to fend off Russia's pressure by courting the West but is gearing up to extend his rule in an August 2020 election that, like all previous votes since his first election in 1994, is all but certain to fall short of democratic standards.
Relatives of the disappeared and others familiar with the cases, however, say much of what Harauski described jibes with what they believed happened to the three men.
Officially, the government has not reacted to the charges, and the Prosecutor-General's Office said it couldn't comment since all three cases are still open.
But analysts say the fresh allegations could aid those who are hoping that justice will finally be served.
"Whether it is true or not, the fact that there are new details in the cases of the murders is giving a hope that the investigations will proceed," said Alesya Rudnik, a Belarusian journalist and analyst based in Sweden.
Harauski said that in the spring of 1999, he served in a special Belarusian Interior Ministry force called the Special Rapid Response Unit, or SOBR.
He claimed he participated in the May 7, 1999, kidnapping of Zakharanka in Minsk. Zakharanka was driven to a military base outside the city and then shot, Harauski said, by his superior officer.
Harauski said he was also involved in the September 16, 1999, abduction of Hanchar, the former head of the country's Central Election Commission, and Krasouski, a businessman who supported the political opposition to Lukashenka and his government.
The two men disappeared after visiting a sauna in Minsk.
Both, he said, were taken to a military base and executed, their bodies buried in a forest in already-dug graves.
Harauski pointed the finger at Dzmitry Paulichenka, a lieutenant colonel who was the head of the SOBR unit, as having recruited him and executing Zakharanka.
Paulichenka told the Belarusian news portal Tut.by that Harauski's comments were "nonsense" and claimed that Harauski was kicked out of the SOBR for alleged criminal activity.
Later, though, Paulichenka said he couldn't remember anyone with that name.
"Honestly, I don't remember such a person. In the interview with Tut.by, I could have confused him with another fighter [from the SOBR]. Friends then called me and said no one recognized him. Based on the video, no one knows him."
However, the Belarusian news site Nasha Niva on December 17 posted what it said was a photo of Paulichenka and Harauski at what appears to be a gathering of military officers and others.
Ihar Parechyn, who identified himself as linked with Paulichenka through a military association called Honor, claimed Harauski was motivated by money.
"I have known Yury Harauski for a long time. I saw for myself how he had approached Dzmitry Valerevich [Paulichenka] for money. I know that Yury drinks," Parechyn told RFE/RL's Belarus Service.
Others were quick to dismiss Harauski's comments.
Yury Sivakou, head of the Interior Ministry troops in 1999-2000, asserted that the testimony provided by Harauski to Deutsche Welle was a fabrication put out before Lukashenka and Putin are to meet on December 20, Nasha Niva reported. He did not provide specific evidence.
"The main thing is its timing," Sivakou said. "When do we have a meeting between Lukashenka and Putin? December 20th? It seems to me that this is not even dessert, but only an appetizer. The first course and the second and the third should appear later.
"It seems to me that such trump cards are prepared in advance," he added. "They lie somewhere, waiting for the moment of truth to be made public. But I would like to say that this material is the most professional of all that [has emerged so far]."
Putin and Lukashenka are due to meet in St. Petersburg, where they may seek to smooth out differences about a series of "roadmaps" to further integrate their countries' economies. A meeting on December 7, ahead of the 20th anniversary of a pact to create a Russia-Belarus Union State that exists mainly on paper, was anticlimactic and no breakthrough is expected at the upcoming summit.
"A significant number of unresolved questions remain. Things are moving forward slowly," Russian Economic Development Minister Maksim Oreshkin said on December 18, adding that energy issues remain among the thorniest.
Rudnik voiced doubt that the Kremlin played a role in the Harauski affair to put pressure on Lukashenka.
"The credits that Putin would get by discrediting Lukashenka in this manner are too low, from my point of view," she explained in e-mailed comments to RFE/RL.
Meanwhile, many in Belarus find Harauski credible.
Svyatlana Zavadzkaya – the widow of Dzmitry Zavadzki , a Belarusian journalist working for Russian television who went missing on July 7, 2000, along with a driver, and is presumed dead – said she "trembled" when she "read everything" in the Deutsche Welle article on Harauski.
Aleh Vouchak, a leading Belarusian human rights activist, said Harauski confirmed what he himself had been able to uncover.
"He confirmed the mechanism of the civil commission investigating the disappearance of Zakharanka and Hanchar. Only he confirmed the plot not as a human rights activist, but as an active participant," Vouchak told the independent news site Belsat.
"This is important because he confirmed the report of the former Special Rapporteur of the Legal Commission of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) on Belarus, Christos Pourgourides, as well as the testimony of other human rights defenders," he said. "Everything is the same."
That 2004 PACE report concluded that senior Belarusian officials "may themselves be involved" in the disappearance of the men.
Vouchak said he expected the Lukashenka government to ignore the charges.
"They may comment on this only if the European Union asks for an explanation. Belarus is implementing many European grant projects in border protection, health care and ecology," Vouchak said.
The EU in 2016 lifted most sanctions imposed against Belarus over its record on rights and democracy. Seeking closer ties with Brussels, Lukashenka visited Vienna on November 12 for his first trip to an EU country in three years.