Belarus announced today, Wednesday, the suspension of 32 fighters from the special "Wagner" military group that is considered close to the Kremlin, and accused them of seeking to "destabilize" the country as the presidential elections approached, and requested clarifications from Moscow.
Russia and Belarus are historically ally, but relations have been getting more tense since the end of 2019, with President Alexander Lukashenko accusing Moscow in particular of seeking to follow his country and interfering in the August 9 poll.
The most prominent Belarusian TV and official news agency "BILTA" announced the arrests that took place after the authorities learned that "200 fighters arrived in Belarus to destabilize the situation during the campaign period."
The KGB security forces carried out the operation, which coincides with the last phase of an unusual election campaign, which witnessed an unprecedented mobilization in favor of the opposition and suppression of demonstrators and Lukashenko's competitors.
The latter has been leading Belarus with an iron fist since 1994 and is a candidate for a sixth term, accusing the Kremlin of supporting his opponents.
"If they are Russian citizens and I know very well that they are after their interrogation, they should contact the relevant Russian authorities to explain what is happening," Lukashenko told STV television.
Soon thereafter, the Russian embassy in Minsk said on Twitter that it had received "an official notification of the suspension of 32 Russian citizens", without adding details.
According to the "Bilta" agency, the 32 men were arrested on Tuesday night, at a hotel near the capital, Minsk, and they are "fighters in the Wagner Special Military Group".
She added that another man was arrested in the south of the country, without clarifying the whereabouts of the remaining "fighters".
The "Wagner" group was founded by a person close to Vladimir Putin, and holds a reputation as a tool that Russia uses for foreign military interventions that it cannot officially undertake.
The company has appeared in eastern Ukraine, which has been in constant war since 2014, and also deployed its elements in Libya and Syria. Russia denies any link to the group.
Belarus public television released photos taken by security cameras when the suspected group arrived at the hotel, and photos of their arrest.
The photos also showed dollar packages, Russian passports, and manuals for using military equipment.
The TV report added that "the new inmates drew attention to their unusual behavior of Russian tourists and their uniform in uniform."
These men "did not drink alcohol and did not go to entertainment places" in the hotel, according to the report's introduction, who confirmed that they "examined the place and the parts carefully."
Beta released a list of the detainees, all of them men between the ages of 24 and 55. The author of the nationalist trend, Zakhar Prilibin, who fought alongside the pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine, confirmed on his Facebook page that some of the detainees were his comrades in the same battalion.
Relations between Russia and Belarus are usually cordial, but there are occasional tensions associated with energy disputes.
Alexander Lukashenko has stepped up his statements in recent months to condemn Russian pressure, especially accusing Moscow of wanting to unite the two countries into one entity under its control and of seeking to influence the presidential election.
The Belarusian president never showed up with a protective mask, and on Wednesday he announced he was infected with the emerging coronavirus, without symptoms.
Lukashenko, seeking to win a sixth presidential term, has previously accused some countries of seeking to "destabilize" the situation as the elections approach, but he directed them only to Western countries.
Since coming to power, he has not allowed the opposition to play a role in the country, and has put its leaders in prison.
The current election campaign witnessed the emergence of new faces. Svetlana Tikanovskaya is Lukashenko's main rival, and she filed for the election to replace her husband, who is known for publishing regular videos, after his imprisonment in May as his popularity increased.