Belarus investigators on Thursday accused Russian mercenaries and top critics of President Alexander Lukashenko of working together to plot mass unrest as tensions increase in a pre-election crackdown.
Investigators said the Russian mercenaries were in cahoots with blogger Sergei Tikhanovsky and opposition politician Mikola Statkevich, both of whom have been jailed ahead of the August 9 vote.
The announcement was the latest twist in an extraordinary election campaign in which the 65-year-old leader, who has dominated Belarus for nearly three decades, is seeking a sixth term in the face of rising anger over his rule.
Despite the increasing crackdown, thousands of protesters gathered in the capital Minsk Thursday evening to support Tikhanovsky’s wife, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who has emerged as Lukashenko’s top rival after the blogger himself was jailed.
Police put the turnout at 7,000 people while the Vyasna rights organisation said about 25,000 had turned up.
Earlier Thursday, investigators opened a criminal case against “Tikhanovsky, Statkevich and 33 detained Russian citizens,” Investigative Committee spokesman Sergei Kabakovich told AFP.
“They acted together.”
The Belarusian KGB security service on Wednesday arrested 33 Russian mercenaries, claiming they were on a mission to destabilise the ex-Soviet state.
Minsk says the detained men are members of the Wagner group, a shadowy military contractor reportedly controlled by an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin that promotes his interests in Syria, Libya and Ukraine.
Tikhanovsky, 41, is a popular blogger, who has nicknamed Lukashenko the “cockroach,” but is now not allowed to run in the election.
An Investigative Committee statement said another criminal probe had been launched against Tikhanovsky for inciting “social hostility” and calling for violence against law enforcement officers.
Statkevich, 63, is one of the country’s most prominent opposition leaders.
In 2010, he challenged Lukashenko in a presidential poll and was afterwards sentenced to six years in prison.
He was released in 2015 but has not been allowed to participate in the current election.
Belarus says it is still tracking down dozens of other mercenaries.
Moscow vehemently denied any involvement, pointing out that Belarus was a close ally.
Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said claims that “organisations from Russia are sending some people to destabilise the situation in Belarus” were “nothing but insinuations”.
Belarus and Russia are “allies and very strong partners,” he insisted.
Russia’s ambassador to Belarus Dmitry Mezentsev for his part said that the detained Russian men were transiting through Belarus and were en route to a “third country.”
The Russians “may” indeed be members of a private security company that protects energy infrastructure outside Russian borders but “not in Belarus,” he added.
He demanded that Belarus provide evidence to justify the arrests.
– ‘Regime change’ –
Russia is Minsk’s closest political and economic ally but relations have been strained for years.
Lukashenko has been under increasing pressure to move closer to Russia but the Belarus leader has rejected the idea of outright unification with Moscow.
Some analysts suggested that the arrests of Russians gave Lukashenko an excuse to crack down harder on the opposition while others said Moscow might indeed be considering some action.
Belarusian military analyst Arseny Sivitsky suggested Russia might have sent mercenaries “to organise provocations on the eve of elections.”
That could create a “pretext for the Kremlin to then interfere with force to change the regime,” he said.
Russian political analyst Tatyana Stanovaya said that the Kremlin has not apparently given up on its plans of unification with Belarus.
Writing on Telegram, Stanovaya quipped that the members of the Wagner group might have arrived in Minsk to “monitor” the August 9 election.
Belarus’ foreign ministry said it had summoned Russian and Ukrainian diplomats to discuss the affair.
It cited “proven evidence” that some of those detained had fought in the separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine and some had Ukrainian citizenship.
Ukraine’s security service said it planned to “initiate extradition” of the men.
Belarus television showed several Russian passports allegedly belonging to the detained men, along with stacks of dollar bills, packs of condoms and pieces of paper with Arabic script.
The men also appeared to have been carrying Sudanese pounds.