Belarus strongman Alexander Lukashenko on Wednesday demanded an explanation from Moscow after Minsk arrested more than 30 allegedly Russian fighters ahead of next month’s tense presidential election.
«It is necessary to immediately turn to appropriate Russian structures so that they explain what is going on,» Lukashenko said at an emergency meeting.
Earlier in the day Belarus arrested a group of 33 Russians allegedly plotting to destabilize the country, state media said.
State news agency Belta said the detained men were members of the Wagner group, a shadowy private military firm that is reportedly controlled by an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin and promotes Moscow’s interests in Ukraine, Syria and Libya.
The surprise announcement is the latest twist in an extraordinary election campaign that has seen Lukashenko jail his key would-be rivals ahead of the August 9 vote.
Speaking an emergency meeting of his security council, Lukashenko said he did not want to «smear» ally Moscow but added it was important for Russia to come clean.
«If they are guilty, it’s necessary to emerge out of this situation with dignity,» Lukashenko said in televised remarks.
Russian author Zakhar Prilepin, who fought alongside Moscow-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine, said he knew some of the detained men.
Writing on Facebook, Prilepin suggested that the fighters probably used Belarus as a transit point and were en route to «some other destination,» which he said Belarus «surely knows very well.»
Unlike Russia, Belarus has not enforced a lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic and operates flights as usual.
Belarus Leader Lukashenko Sworn In at Secret Ceremony
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko has been sworn in for a sixth term at a secret ceremony held with no prior announcement, the Belta state news agency reported Wednesday.
Lukashenko has faced massive demonstrations against his rule in Minsk and other cities since claiming victory in disputed elections on Aug. 9, and has made only rare appearances in public view.
«Alexander Lukashenko has taken office as President of Belarus. The inauguration ceremony is taking place in these minutes in the Palace of Independence,» the news agency reported.
Earlier independent news agencies reported that streets were closed as Lukashenko’s motorcade raced through the capital Minsk, prompting speculation that the inauguration was due to take place, while there was no official confirmation.
Lukashenko’s official website did not make any announcement and the ceremony was not shown live on state television, apparently to avoid protesters gathering.
The 66-year-old leader, in power since 1994, viewed one protest rally from his helicopter, describing the demonstrators as «rats,» and later disembarked in a bullet-proof vest, carrying a Kalashnikov.
He has sought backing from Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has promised him law enforcement backup if needed, as well as a $1.5 billion loan.
His main opposition rival, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, claimed she won the election but has taken shelter in Lithuania, while Lukashenko has jailed or driven out other key opposition figures.
European Union foreign ministers on Monday failed to agree sanctions over the political crisis, despite a plea for support from Tikhanovskaya.
Cyprus, which has good relations with Russia, has vetoed proposed EU sanctions.