Russia and Belarus clash over mercenaries arrest

A dispute between Moscow and Minsk over the detention of more than 30 men who Belarus accused of being Russian mercenaries deepened on Saturday, as the two sides contradicted each other about the group’s plans, news wires reported. The arrests could further strain relations between Belarus and Russia, which soured after the neighbours failed to agree on an oil supply contract for this year.

Russia said on Thursday that the men, who it described as employees of a private security firm, had stayed in Belarus after missing their connecting flight to Istanbul. But Alexander Agafonov, the head of the Belarusian investigative group which is handling the case, said late on Friday that the men had no plans to fly further to Istanbul.

Authorities in Minsk said a day earlier they believe the husband of opposition presidential candidate Svetlana Tikhanouskaya may have ties to the group, launching a criminal case against him on suspicion of inciting riots. Agafonov told a local television station the men’s onward tickets to Istanbul were only “alibis”, and said they had given “contradictory accounts” about the purpose of their stay in Belarus.

Dmitry Mezentsev, Russia’s ambassador to Belarus, earlier denied any connection between the detained men and domestic affairs in Belarus. He said they had stopped in Belarus en route, via Istanbul, to a third unnamed country and were not involved in any way with the domestic affairs of Belarus.

Sergei Naryshkin, head of Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service, said on Saturday he hoped the incident would be resolved. “This is in the interests of development of friendly and brotherly relations between our two countries and two peoples,” Naryshkin was quoted as saying by RIA news agency.

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