Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko has accused Russia of lying about a “mercenary”
“Today we heard about another unit that was sent south,” he said in a speech to the nation. “We’ll catch them all.”
Russia has denied that the 33 detained Russians were planning terrorism and were linked to anti-Lukashenko activists.
The protests against Lukashenko have increased when he is trying to be re-elected on August 9.
Russia has said that the 33 – allegedly members of the shadowy Wagner mercenary group – were only en route to Istanbul via Belarus. And Russia insists that it had no mission to interfere in the presidential elections in Belarus.
“All of this about Istanbul, Venezuela, Africa and Libya – it’s a lie. These people – they have already testified – were intentionally sent to Belarus. The command was to wait,” said Lukashenko in his annual television address.
He said the Russians could have gone directly to an overseas destination – they didn’t have to travel to Belarus to do so.
“So far there has been no open war, no gunshots, the withdrawal has not yet been made, but an attempt to organize a massacre in the center of Minsk is already evident,” he said.
Russia has asked Belarus to release the men nominated by Belarusian officials, although the Wagner connection has not been independently confirmed.
The Wagner group is said to have played an important role in eastern Ukraine and to help the pro-Russian rebels there as well as in Syria, Libya and some other conflict areas.
The Belarusian authorities acted against opposition and peaceful protests ahead of Sunday’s election.
The early vote started on Tuesday. Western governments and human rights groups have long complained that Mr. Lukashenko harasses opponents, controls the media, and marginalizes independent voices.
The main competitor of Mr. Lukashenko is now political novice Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who entered the race after her husband Sergei Tikhanovsky, a popular YouTube blogger, was banned from standing and detained.
The authorities claim that the arrested Russians worked with Mr. Tikhanovsky. his wife rejected this “very scary” claim. Her five-year-old daughter and ten-year-old son were brought abroad for their own safety.
Mr. Lukashenko, who has been in power since 1994, has been criticized for his dealings with the economy and the coronavirus pandemic. He asked Belarusians to continue as usual and despised the bans imposed by the rest of Europe to contain the virus.