On Friday, Russia demanded that 33 of its citizens who had been arrested in Belarus be released. The detainees are accused of wanting to orchestrate “mass riots” in Belarus a few days before the presidential election, which is proving a difficult endeavour for Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko.
According to the government in Belarus, the suspects are men from the private paramilitary company Wagner, a group long accused of being close to the Kremlin and of deploying its mercenaries in foreign countries.
“We hope that our Belarusian allies will explain this incident as soon as possible and that our citizens will be released,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters.
He deemed the arrests of these men, some of whom fought in Ukraine, to be “unfounded.”
Peskov confirmed on Friday that the Russians worked for a private security company, but did not name it. According to him, they were transiting through Belarus on their way to an unspecified destination inTurkey.
“They had nothing illegal about them and did nothing to break the law,” the Kremlin spokesperson insisted.
In an interview with state television, a Belarusian official assured that this transit to Turkey was an “alibi”.
“The investigation showed that they did not plan to go there,” said Alexander Agafonov, the head of the Belarusian investigative group, according to statements quoted by the Tut news website.
The arrested men gave “contradictory” explanations about their presence in Belarus, he added.
Eleven of the detainees said they planned to visit Venezuela, fifteen said they were on their way to Turkey, two were travelling to Cuba and one to Syria, Agafonov said. According to him, a suspect said he did not know his destination and three others refused to answer.
Historical allies, Russia and Belarus have maintained strained relations since the end of 2019, Alexander Lukashenko accusing Russia of wanting to reduce his country to the state of a vassal and of meddling in the August 9 ballot, which Moscow denies.
Belarus accuses the 33 Russians, as well as some 200 others still wanted, of having sought to “destabilise” the country in the run-up to the presidential election.
The authorities accuse these men of conspiring to organise “mass riots” with two imprisoned opposition figures, Sergei Tikhanovsky and Mikola Statkevich.
For her part, Tikhanovsky’s wife, Svetlana Tikhanovskaïa, who is now a presidential candidate and possibly Lukashenko’s main rival, rejected these accusations.
“No one can believe that these fighters were sent to us for the elections. That they wanted to make a revolution here,” Tikhanovskaya said on Thursday, during a rally in Minsk attended by tens of thousands of people.
Ms Tikhanovskaya replaced her husband, a very popular video blogger, in the presidential race at short notice after his arrest in May on charges described by his supporters as political.