Belarus opens a criminal investigation into "terrorist acts" planned by Russian mercenaries arrested before the presidential vote.
Belarus has opened a criminal investigation into "terrorist acts" planned by Russian mercenaries arrested before the presidential elections, adding that he was tracking dozens more.
The country's security services on Wednesday arrested a group of 32 Russian fighters and another man at a different location.
The head of the Belarusian security council, Andrei Ravkov, said Thursday that a criminal investigation had been launched and that the men were accused of preparing "terrorist acts".
“Thirty-three were arrested; there are up to 200 or so on the territory (of Belarus), ”Ravkov said.
He said "a search is underway" to find the others, complaining that it was "like looking for needles in a haystack".
KGB security services in Belarus said the men arrested were members of the Wagner Group, a private military firm believed to have been controlled by an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin and which defends Moscow's interests in Ukraine, Syria and in Libya.
The arrests came ahead of the August 9 presidential elections in which strongman Alexander Lukashenko is running for a sixth term.
Lukashenko arrested opposition candidates and their supporters.
Protests erupted across the country of 9,5 million people, with 37-year-old political novice Svetlana Tikhanovskaya quickly becoming Lukashenko's main rival.
Lukashenko accused some of his critics of being controlled by "puppeteers" in Moscow.
Ravkov spoke after meeting with candidates opposed to Lukashenko, including Tikhanovskaya, and warned them that security measures would be tightened at the rallies.
Later, the state-owned Belta News Agency reported that Belarusian authorities believe Tikhanouskaya's husband may have ties to the Russian group and have launched criminal proceedings against him on suspicion of inciting riots.
Belta said earlier that the authorities had received information about the arrival of 200 fighters in Belarus "to destabilize the situation during the election campaign".
In an emergency meeting of his security council on Wednesday, Lukashenko demanded an explanation from Moscow.
"If they are guilty, it is necessary to come out of this situation with dignity," Lukashenko said in televised remarks.
Russian Ambassador to Belarus Dmitry Mezentsev said on Thursday that he was invited to the Belarusian Foreign Ministry that morning to discuss the case, Russian news agencies reported.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Moscow wanted a comprehensive explanation from Belarus on the arrested Russians and hoped their rights would be fully respected.
“We have no information about the illegal activities carried out by them,” Peskov said in Moscow. “We hope to receive information that will enable us to resolve this problem. "
Peskov said there were many Belarusian men of a similar description in Russia, but Moscow did not assume they were doing anything illegal.
Also on Thursday, Belarus and Ukraine agreed to tighten border controls and expand border cooperation following the arrests, Belarusian foreign ministry said.
The move is aimed at preventing any attempt to destabilize the two countries, the Belarusian ministry said in a statement, following a meeting with Mezentsev and the Acting Ukrainian Ambassador to Belarus.
source: https: //www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/07/belarus-probes-russian-mercenaries-terror-plot-200730092717064.html