Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has accused Russia of trying to cover up an attempt to send 200 fighters from a private Russian military firm into Belarus on a mission to destabilize the country ahead of its August 9 presidential election.
Lukashenka made the remarks on August 1 after he said he'd read an initial report by Belarusian investigators into the alleged plot by members of the Vagner Group -- a private Russian military company thought to be controlled by an influential political ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, Yevgeny Prigozhin. Its fighters have turned up in conflicts in Ukraine, Syria, and Libya.
Earlier on August 1, the Russian Embassy in Minsk announced that its diplomats had met with a group of 33 jailed Vagner Group contractors who've been detained by Belarusian authorities.
"As far as I understand, this is just the first group of 180 or 200 people that had been planned for redeployment to Belarus," Lukashenka was quoted by the BelTA state news agency as saying on August 1.
"Russia's attempt to hide the 'tail' now and claim that the arrival of this group was agreed on with us -- this is total nonsense," Lukashenka said.
The Kremlin has demanded their release, saying their arrests were "unreasonable."
Earlier this week, 32 contractors from Vagner were detained near Minsk while another was detained in southern Belarus.
The Ukrainian Prosecutor-General's Office said on July 31 that Kyiv would ask Belarus to hand over 28 of the detainees on charges of fighting alongside Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine. It said nine Ukrainian citizens are among the 28.
However, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on August 1 that Moscow considers all of the detainees to be Russian citizens.
Peskov also has rejected Minsk's claims that the group planned to interfere in Belarus's presidential election. He says the 33 men were detained while they were in transit to Istanbul before flying to "a third country."
"Their stay is connected neither to Belarus itself nor its internal affairs," Peskov told reporters on July 31.
However, Alyaksandr Agafonov, who leads the Belarusian investigation, says the men’s plans for onward travel were just "an alibi."
Agafonov also said that the “evidence about the reasons for their stay in Belarus is incoherent and contradictory.”
The head of the Belarusian Security Council, Andrey Raukou, said on July 30 that "upwards of up to 200 militants" remain at large in Belarus and efforts to locate them continue.
The August 9 presidential vote in Belarus is shaping up to be a tough race for incumbent Alyaksandr Lukashenka, an authoritarian leader who has been in power since 1994.
Lukashenka has cracked down on the opposition during the campaign, with the arrest of hundreds of people, including journalists, bloggers, and political activists. Charges were pressed against two potential candidates.