Belarus says detained Russian mercenaries were plotting terror attack

President Lukashenko accuses Russia of interference in country’s imminent elections

Belarus has accused 33 Russian mercenaries detained near Minsk of preparing a terrorist attack to destabilise the country ahead of its presidential elections in a sharp escalation of tensions with Moscow.

Belarus has claimed that the men are mercenaries employed by the Russian private military company Wagner, which has been tied to an ally of Vladimir Putin and has fought in armed conflict in Ukraine, Syria and countries in Africa. Several of the men, who were arrested at a sanatorium outside Minsk on Wednesday, fought against the government in east Ukraine, Russian media have reported.

The head of Belarus’ security council said they were looking for another 200 Russian mercenaries whom they have accused of being sent to prepare “terrorist attacks”. “We are searching for them,” said Andrei Ravkov, head of the country’s security council. “But it’s like a needle in a haystack.”

Alexander Lukashenko, the country’s president for the past 25 years, has publicly accused Russia and the west of seeking to interfere in the country’s elections. He claimed last week that Russian mercenaries could be sent to the country to organise a “Maidan”, a reference to the 2014 Ukrainian revolution that overthrew the then president, Viktor Yanukovych.

The government did not give any more details on what kind of attacks were being planned, and critics have suggested the alleged mercenaries were either arrested en route from Russia to Africa or sent to Lukashenko by the Russian government as a pretext to trigger a state of emergency.

The arrests come during the most competitive presidential election in Belarus in decades, as the opposition has coalesced around Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, a reluctant presidential candidate who has attracted crowds of thousands while touring the country this week. Another candidate, Viktor Babariko, has been arrested on charges of money laundering and barred from the election. Lukashenko has also accused him of being backed by Russia. A third presidential candidate, Valery Tsepkalo, fled to Moscow with his children after he claimed to have learned that an order had been put out for his arrest.

Belarus summoned the Russian ambassador on Thursday “to provide substantive explanations regarding the goals and other aspects of the arrival and presence in our country of said organised group, numerous members of which have a proven record of involvement in armed conflicts”, the Belarusian foreign ministry said.

Belarus also summoned the ambassador of Ukraine, which has said it will demand the extradition of the men for fighting alongside pro-Russian forces in east Ukraine. The extradition would mark a considerable escalation with Russia.

The Belarusian elections commission summoned all the presidential candidates to an emergency meeting on Thursday morning, sparking fears that the arrest of the mercenaries could serve as a pretext for delaying the 9 August vote.

However, officials only said there would be heightened security precautions at rallies, a measure that would target Tikhanovskaya’s candidacy in particular. On Thursday night, she addressed 34,000 supporters at what was reportedly the largest opposition rally in the country for a decade.

She denied that the opposition was collaborating with the Russians to stage an uprising. “People, what revolution? We want honest elections,” Tikhanovskaya said.

Russian mercenaries have been using Minsk as a stopover point on their way to Africa since Russia halted most commercial flights out of the country because of coronavirus, Russian media have reported.

Lukashenko is facing one of the toughest challenges to his rule during his 25 years in power. The crisis has been triggered by many factors, including a slowing economy and Lukashenko’s own dismissive remarks about the coronavirus pandemic.

Earlier this week he said he had contracted an “asymptomatic” form of the disease. “Today you are meeting a man who managed to survive the coronavirus on his feet,” he said during a meeting with the military.


Andrew Roth in Moscow

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Belarus opposition leader to ask Merkel about upping pressure on Lukashenko
Svetlana Tikhanovskaya says in interview that people can no longer live under dictatorship, as more 100,000 protest on Sunday

Shaun Walker in Moscow

05, Oct, 2020 @3:30 AM

Article image
Putin holds key to Belarus crisis as Lukashenko heads to Moscow
With a stalemate in Minsk, the next chapter of Belarusian history may be written in the Kremlin

Shaun Walker in Moscow

11, Sep, 2020 @1:37 PM

Article image
Belarus journalist’s father says video confession carried out under duress
Raman Pratasevich, who was seized from diverted Ryanair flight, appeared to have been beaten, says father

Luke Harding

25, May, 2021 @10:10 PM

Article image
Belarus protests: nationwide strike looms after 'people’s ultimatum' rally
Opposition leader calls for action on Monday as Lukashenko defies demand from 100,000 marchers in Minsk to step down

Shaun Walker in Minsk

26, Oct, 2020 @4:47 AM

Article image
Lukashenko plans 'people's assembly' but Belarus reform unlikely
President who won rigged election last August has backing of Putin and renewed threats

Shaun Walker Central and eastern Europe correspondent

10, Feb, 2021 @5:00 AM

Article image
Belarus crisis: EU says it does not recognise election results
Bloc declares solidarity with protests against Lukashenko’s grip on power as it vows to press ahead with sanctions

Jennifer Rankin in Brussels, Andrew Roth in Moscow and Shaun Walker in Minsk

19, Aug, 2020 @3:34 PM

Article image
Alexander Lukashenko has effectively ceded control to Kremlin, say opposition
Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya says Putin ally Alexander Lukashenko is ‘not controlling our military any more’

Katherine Butler

06, Mar, 2022 @12:47 PM

Article image
Belarus protests: more than 6,000 arrested, says interior ministry
Opposition leaders jailed or driven out of country amid crackdown on protests over election results

Andrew Roth in Moscow and Yan Auseyushkin in Minsk

12, Aug, 2020 @4:02 PM

Article image
Belarus opposition faces criminal case as protests continue
Investigation begun into ‘calls for actions aimed at undermining national security’

Shaun Walker in Minsk

20, Aug, 2020 @5:33 PM

Article image
'Resign!': Alexander Lukashenko heckled by factory workers in Minsk
Embattled Belarus president looked shaken as people yelled ‘liar’ in fresh blow to regime

Shaun Walker in Minsk and Andrew Roth in Moscow

17, Aug, 2020 @9:22 PM