Belarus busts Russian plot ahead of election

Belarus suspects that the group of alleged Russian mercenaries it detained on Wednesday of plotting “acts of terrorism” ahead of a presidential election in August and summoned Russia’s ambassador for an explanation, news wires reported. Minsk’s handling of the situation risks worsening relations with traditional ally Russia, which has so far yet to set out its own position, Reuters commented.

Belarus said on Wednesday it had detained more than 30 suspected Russian mercenaries near Minsk after receiving information that more than 200 fighters had entered the country to destabilise it ahead of a presidential election on 9 August. Belarusian Security Council State Secretary Andrei Ravkov told reporters on Thursday that up to 200 mercenaries were still in Belarus and that law enforcement agents were looking for them.

State media in Belarus have reported that the detained men worked for Wagner, Russia’s best-known private military contractor. A senior Belarusian security official has said that 14 of the alleged mercenaries had spent time in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine, where Ukrainian troops have fought Russian-backed fighters in a conflict since 2014. The Kremlin, the Russian Foreign Ministry and a business reportedly affiliated with Wagner have not commented. The Russian state denies it uses mercenaries.

The detentions are the latest twist in a presidential election campaign that has posed the biggest challenge in years to President Alexander Lukashenko’s iron-fisted rule of the east European country. The 65-year-old former collective farm manager is under pressure from critics over what they say is his irresponsible handling of Covid crisis, the economy and alleged human rights abuses. Lukashenko has ruled Belarus since 1994.

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