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Lukashenka Calls For Ukraine, Russia To Help Investigate Vagner Mercenaries

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Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka (right) with Russian President Vladimir Putin (file photo)

Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has ordered his government to invite Ukrainian and Russian prosecutors to Belarus to investigate a group of 33 mercenaries from the private Russian security firm Vagner Group who've been detained in Minsk.

Lukashenka announced the move during a government meeting in Minsk on August 6.

"The three [Belarusian, Ukrainian, and Russian prosecutor-generals] should sit together and decide the way they find proper," Lukashenka said.

The Belarusian president said a decision on how to treat the case "must be based" on Belarusian and international laws.

Lukashenka said that if the Russian and Ukrainian prosecutors do not travel to Minsk for the meetings, "we will make the decision ourselves."

On August 5, Russia's Security Council Deputy Chief Dmitry Medvedev warned Minsk that the arrest of the private security firm contractors could have grave consequences for Russian-Belarusian relations.

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Lukashenka replied to Medvedev's remarks at the August 6 government meeting in Minsk, saying: "There is no need to scare us with repercussions. We are aware of all repercussions."

Lukashenka also said Russia shouldn't try to intimidate the Belarusian government with threats.

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"At the end of the day, it was not Americans or NATO who have sent [the Vagner contractors] here," Lukashenka said.

On July 29, Belarusian authorities announced they had detained 32 contractors from the Vagner Group near Minsk and apprehended another private security contractor from the firm in southern Belarus.

They were arrested on charges of trying to destabilize Belarus ahead of the country's August 9 presidential election.

Speaking about "safety measures" ahead of the vote, Lukashenka told the August 6 government meeting that many others who want to "destabilize Belarus" also have been detained in the country in recent days -- including individuals who have U.S. passports.

"We are talking not just about the arrest of the Vagner Group's members here," Lukashenka said. "Some of the people detained [recently in Minsk] have American passports; those who are married to American women working in the State Department."

"But the Russian leadership is defending them with bayonets atilt," Lukashenka continued, using a military term to described a bayonet fixed to a rifle and lowered into an attacking position. "A hybrid war against Belarus is under way, and we should wait for dirty tricks from any side."

The Ukrainian Prosecutor-General's Office said on July 31 that Kyiv would seek the extradition of 28 of the Vagner Group detainees on charges they had fought alongside Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine. It said nine Ukrainian citizens are among the 28.

Moscow insists that all of the detainees are Russian citizens. It has called on Minsk to release the men and let them return to Russia.

According to Russian authorities, the 33 men were traveling through Belarus on their way to Istanbul before flying to "a third country."

However, Lukashenka says Russia's claim about the mercenaries being en route to Turkey was "a lie."

Lukashenka suggested the detained men were plotting a "color revolution" in Belarus -- a reference to popular upheavals that have toppled governments in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan during the past two decades.

Lukashenka also reiterated his earlier warnings that he will not allow any "Maidan"-style anti-government protests in Minsk during the election or the day after the vote.

The head of the Belarusian Security Council, Andrey Raukou, said on July 30 that authorities were continuing to search for "upwards of up to 200 militants" said to be part of the alleged destabilization plot.

Belarus's presidential election is shaping up to be a tough race for incumbent Lukashenka, an authoritarian leader who has been in power since 1994.

Lukashenka has cracked down on his political opponents during the election campaign, with the country's law enforcement agencies arresting hundreds of people -- including journalists, bloggers, and political activists.

Charges also have been pressed against two potential candidates from the opposition, effectively preventing them from competing against Lukashenka in the election.

Independent election monitoring groups said on August 5 that many of their observers have been detained while trying to monitor polling stations during early voting that started on August 4.

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