Belarussian law enforcement has detained 33 mercenaries from the private Russian military contractor Wagner Group less than two weeks before the country’s presidential election, the Belarus state-run Belta news agency reported Wednesday.
The Wagner Group, a U.S.-sanctioned outfit with links to the Kremlin through catering magnate Yevgeny Prigozhin, has been reported to be fighting in Syria, eastern Ukraine and other conflict-torn countries on behalf of the Russian government.
«Information was received about the arrival of more than 200 militants in Belarussian territory to destabilize the situation during the election campaign,» Belta wrote, citing law enforcement agencies.
Video of the arrest of the alleged Russian Wagner private military contractors near Minsk by the Belarusian KGB’s Alfa group. 5
— Rob Lee (@RALee85) July 29, 2020
The men’s behavior was «uncharacteristic for Russian tourists» because they didn’t drink and their «uniform military-style clothing» drew attention, the news agency said.
Forces from the Belarus KGB and the Minsk special police detained 32 people in Minsk overnight. A 33rd person was detained in the south of the country, Belta reported.
Belarus’ Interior Ministry and Investigative Committee haven’t yet commented on the report.
The Russian Embassy in Minsk said Belarussian law enforcement hasn’t informed them of the detentions.
Russian author Zakhar Prilepin said «two or three» of the detained Russians had served in his former battalion in the conflict in eastern Ukraine.
Protests have swept across Belarus in the lead-up to its Aug. 9 presidential election in which incumbent President Alexander Lukashenko is seeking his sixth term. Protesters first took to the streets after Lukashenko’s main rivals were jailed or barred from running and have since rallied behind the wife of a jailed opposition candidate.
Authorities in Belarus have cracked down on the opposition and detained more than 250 people at protests this month.
Lukashenko has previously accused foreign powers of seeking to destabilize Belarus and organize a popular uprising in the run-up to the vote. Last week he threatened to deport foreign journalists who he accused of stirring up protests against him.
Lukashenko has been in power since 1994. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, an international election and war monitor, has not recognized any polls in Belarus as free and fair since 1995.