Putin, Lukashenko seek to ease tensions

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin expressed confidence on Friday in a telephone call that tensions over the 33 Russian citizens detained in Minsk last month can be resolved, the Kremlin said.

The arrests further strained relations between the two traditional allies, already soured this year by a dispute over oil, in the run-up to a presidential election in Belarus on Sunday, seen as Lukashenko's toughest political challenge in years, Reuters noted. The group of suspected Russian mercenaries were accused of plotting to foment unrest. Russia has said the men were employees of a private security firm and were passing through Belarus on their way to Latin America.

In a telephone call, the two leaders agreed to determine why the Russians were arrested, find the people responsible and bring them to justice, Lukashenko's press office said. It added that Putin had noted the importance of Russia and Belarus having "brotherly" relations.

Lukashenko on Thursday said there was a "hybrid war" against Belarus and that the country should expect "dirty tricks" from any side.

Earlier on Friday the EU's foreign policy chief Josep Borrell called on Belarus to ensure fundamental freedoms of expression and peaceful assembly and to guarantee candidates' full political rights in Sunday's election.

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