MINSK, Belarus (AP) — Belarusian authorities on Thursday accused more than 30 detained Russians of plotting terror attacks amid a presidential election campaign, allegations that Russian officials angrily rejected.
The grave accusations mark an unprecedented spike in tensions between Russia and Belarus, which are neighbors and traditionally allies. Independent observers and opposition supporters in Belarus have dismissed the alleged terror plot as a campaign stunt by President Alexander Lukashenko, the authoritarian leader who is seeking a sixth term in next month’s election.
The Belarusian State Security Committee, still known by its Soviet-era name KGB, said it detained 32 people from private Russian military firm Wagner early Wednesday at a sanitarium outside the capital of Minsk. Another person was detained in the country’s south.
Security Council Secretary Andrei Ravkov said Thursday that the Russians are facing a criminal probe on charges of plotting terror attacks in Belarus. He claimed that Belarusian authorities were searching for another 200 Russian “militants” believed to be in the ex-Soviet nation.
The Kremlin responded by urging Belarus to explain its action and to fully respect the detainees’ rights.
“There is no information about any wrongdoing of the Russians that may have caused the detention.,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said. He shrugged off the allegations of the Russians’ involvement in efforts to destabilize Belarus as “nothing but innuendo.”
After being summoned by the Belarusian Foreign Ministry, Russian Ambassador Dmitry Mezentsev also dismissed the accusations as unfounded. He said the Russians were en route to an unspecified country and checked into the sanitarium near Minsk after they missed a connecting flight at the capital’s airport.
Mezentsev demanded immediate consular access to the detainees and urged Belarusian authorities to show their evidence against the Russians.
The Wagner company is linked to Yevgeny Prigozhin, a Russian businessman who was indicted in the United States for meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. The firm has allegedly deployed hundreds of military contractors to eastern Ukraine, Syria and Libya.
Many observers have pointed out that Belarus long has provided a transit corridor for sensitive Russian operations abroad.
Lukashenko is campaigning to remain in office amid an upsurge in opposition protests fueled by public fatigue with his iron-fisted rule and a painful economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic. Some observers see the detention of the Russians as an attempt by the president to mobilize public support in the Aug. 9 election.
“Amid a sharp drop in his popularity, Lukashenko has to turn to theatrical gestures to scare everyone and to try to stem the wave of protests,” Alexander Klaskovsky, an independent political analyst based in Minsk, said.
Throughout his 26-year rule, Lukashenko has relied on cheap Russian energy and loans to keep his nation’s Soviet-style economy afloat. Belarus and Russia have a union deal envisaging close political, economic and military ties, but Moscow has recently cut some of the subsidies, arguing that Belarus must accept closer integration to receive energy resources at a discount.
The Belarusian leader has bristled at Russian demands and accused the Kremlin of harboring plans to deprive Belarus of its post-Soviet independence.
“The new scandals help remind the Kremlin that it needs to pay for loyalty,” Klaskovsky said.
Belarus’ Investigative Committee said Thursday it was also investigating whether the detained Russians could have been involved in preparations for staging “mass riots” as part of a criminal probe against a jailed opposition blogger, Sergei Tikhanovsky. He has been in custody since May on charges of attacking a police officer, which he rejected as a provocation
Tikhanovsky’s wife, Svetlana, who is challenging Lukashenko in the election, dismissed the new accusations against her husband as “absolutely unlawful.” Election officials rejected attempts by two other potential presidential challengers to register for the race.
Over 20,000 Tikhanovskaya’s supporters gathered Thursday at her rally in Minsk, the biggest since the start of the campaign. Many participants dismissed the official claims of a Russian subversion plot as a sham.
“We are worried about the lack of money to buy food and medicines, not some mythical enemies and plots,” retiree Nikolai Ostapchuk, 72, said.
“No one believes in these thriller stories about Russian militants, which are intended to switch our attention, scare us and keep us at home,” said 43-year-old driver Dmitry Furkovsky.
Daria Litvinova and Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow contributed to this report.