MINSK -- Tens of thousands of people have gathered in the Belarusian capital for the largest opposition rally in the country since the start of the campaign ahead of a presidential election on August 9.
The Vyasna human rights center said at least 63,000 supporters of registered presidential candidate Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya turned up for the demonstration in Minsk's Park of Peoples' Friendship on July 30, as President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has faced mounting public opposition in recent months after 26 years in power.
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 the election officials.
At the rally in Minsk, which included performances by musicians and singers, Tsikhanouskaya said the opposition wanted "fair elections," not a revolution.
"We are peaceful people and we want peaceful changes in our country," she said, as the crowd chanted slogans such as "Freedom!"
The site is surrounded by a fence, while visitors have to pass through metal detectors manned by police.
Lukashenka, who has ruled Belarus since 1994, is seeking a sixth term in the upcoming election.
Tsikhanouskaya has said that she decided to take part in the poll after her husband, popular vlogger Syarhey Tsikhanouski, was jailed after he expressed his intention to run for presidency last month.
The rally comes after Belarusian authorities linked Tsikhanouski and other jailed opposition politicians with a probe launched against 33 contractors from the private Russian military company Vagner, who were detained and allegedly wanted to destabilize the country ahead of the August presidential election.
The Investigative Committee of Belarus said earlier on July 30 that Tsikhanouski was charged with "committing actions to incite social hatred and the assault of law enforcement officers."
The statement added that Tsikhanouski, along with veteran opposition politician Mikalay Statkevich, who was also jailed in the runup to the polls, and several unnamed individuals, were charged with preparing mass disorder, a crime that may be punished by up to eight years in prison.
"As a result of a check of operative information received from special services, 33 citizens of the Russian Federation, servicemen of the Vagner private military company... were detained on suspicion of committing the aforementioned crime," the statement added.
Tsikhanouskaya rejected the new accusations against her husband.
Addressing the rally in her support, she said: "No one will believe that these hitmen have been dispatched here specifically for the elections."
Earlier in the day, security officials warned candidates in the upcoming presidential election to beware of possible "provocations" during the campaign as authorities opened a criminal probe into the 33 contractors from Vagner.
Andrey Raukou, the chief of the Belarusian Security Council, said he met on July 30 with Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, Syarhey Cherachan, Hanna Kanapatskaya, Andrey Dzmitryyeu, and parliamentary Chairwoman Natallya Kachanava, who represented incumbent Alyaksandr Lukashenka, to inform the candidates about "additional security measures at public events."
Raukou added that in addition to detaining 33 Russian citizens on July 29, "upwards of up to 200 militants" remain at large in Belarus and efforts to locate them continue as a probe was launched into what officials said were the "preparation of terrorist acts" in Belarus by the suspects.
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.
Neighboring Ukraine said on July 30 that it was initiating an extradition request for some of the mercenaries, who it believes have fought alongside Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine.
The Belarusian Foreign Ministry said on July 30 that it had separately summoned Russian Ambassador Dmitry Mezentsev and the acting head of the Ukrainian Embassy in Belarus, Petro Vrublevskiy, to discuss the situation.
The ministry said “the Russian ambassador has been asked for detailed explanations regarding the goals and other aspects of the arrival and stay in our country of this organized group of persons, many of whom have proven combat experience.”
“Taking into account the confirmed information on the participation of a number of detainees in combat activities in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of Ukraine (against Ukrainian armed forces) as well as the Ukrainian origin and Ukrainian citizenship of some of them, Petro Vrublevskiy was asked to provide the relevant information for a comprehensive analysis and assessment of the reasons for their presence in Belarus,” the ministry said.
Moscow vehemently rejected Minsk’s claims, with Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov describing allegations that "organizations from Russia are sending some people to destabilize the situation in Belarus" as "nothing but insinuations."
Ambassador Mezentsev said that the detained Russian men were transiting through Belarus and were en route to a "third country."
According to Raukou, it is not known who exactly sent the militants as the investigation continues and the 33 Russian citizens are interrogated.
Tsikhanouskaya told journalists after the meeting with Raukou that all events for her campaign will proceed as planned despite the warning.
Belarusian authorities said they found the suspects at a health resort near Minsk overnight on July 29, after receiving information that more than 200 Russian military contractors had arrived days earlier in Belarus to "destabilize the situation in the country ahead of the election.”
Another suspect was detained in the south of the country, according to the BelTA news agency, which also published a list of the 33 Russian citizens, aged between 24 and 55, who had been apprehended.
In 2018, the U.S. State Department blacklisted Vagner along with more than 30 other Russian companies and individuals with ties to military and intelligence agencies.
Separately, Veranika Tsapkala, the wife of former potential presidential candidate Valer Tsapkala, who had to flee the country with their children for safety reasons, said on July 30 that her sister had been kidnapped by unknown individuals.
Tsapkala said on July 30 that unknown individuals wearing civilian clothes "kidnapped" her sister in a parking lot in Minsk earlier in the day and took her away. Her whereabouts are currently unknown.
Later, it turned out that her sister, Natallya Leanyuk, was briefly detained by police for questioning in a probe launched against Valer Tsapkala following a lawsuit filed by a Turkish businessman who accused him of bribery and insult.