Belarus detains dozens of Russian mercenaries before election, says state media

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko photographed on Independence Day in Minsk, Belarus, July 3, 2020.
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko photographed on Independence Day in Minsk, Belarus, July 3, 2020. © Vasily Fedosenko, REUTERS

Belarusian authorities said Wednesday they have detained dozens of Russian private military contractors days before Belarus' presidential vote, a sign of escalating tensions between the two neighbors.


Belarus' authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko, who is seeking a sixth term in office in the Aug. 9 vote, has repeatedly accused Russia of trying to force Belarus to abandon its post-Soviet independence. Throughout his 26-year rule, the 65-year-old Lukashenko has relied on Russian subsidies and political support but has fiercely resisted Moscow's efforts to gain control over Belarus' economic assets. 

The arrest of dozens of Russians accused of planning to destabilise Belarus amid the election campaign pushes political tensions between the countries to a new high.

Belarus' state news agency BelTA said that 32 members of Russia's Wagner private military company were detained overnight at a sanitarium outside Minsk by a SWAT team from the Belarusian State Security Committee, still known by its Soviet-era name KGB. Another person was detained in the country's south, said the BelTA, which published a list of the detained Russians.

Yulia Goncharova, the spokeswoman for Belarus' top investigative agency, the Investigative Committee, confirmed the detentions but refrained from further comment.

The Russian Embassy in Belarus had no immediate comment on the report, saying it hadn't received official information about the detentions from the Belarusian authorities.

BelTA said that Belarusian law enforcement agencies were acting on a tip that over 200 militants had arrived in Belarus on a mission to destabilize the country during the election campaign.

Lukashenko, the former state farm director, has ruled the ex-Soviet nation of 9.5 million with an iron hand, cracking down on dissent and free media, and extending his rule through votes the West has criticized as rigged.

The Belarusian leader is expected to easily win reelection on Aug. 9 despite a wave of opposition protests fueled by public fatigue with his rule and a painful economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic.

The World Bank has forecast that the Belarusian economy will shrink by at least 4% this year, the largest decline in a quarter-century.

Belarus election officials barred the president’s two main challengers from appearing on the ballot. 

One of the challengers, Viktor Babariko, the former head of a major Russia-controlled bank, has been jailed on money laundering and tax evasion charges. 

Another, Valery Tsepkalo, a former ambassador to the United States and the founder of a thriving high-tech development park, was denied registration after authorities invalidated some of the signatures he had collected to qualify. 

Tsepkalo fled to Russia with his children after receiving a warning that his arrest was imminent and the authorities were planning to strip him of his parental rights and take his children away.

Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the wife of jailed opposition blogger Sergei Tikhanovsky, is the only opposition candidate to have been allowed on the ballot.


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