The scandal surrounding the detention in Belarus of 33 Russians, whom the Belarusian KGB suspects of trying to destabilize the situation ahead of the presidential elections, continues to gain momentum.
A criminal case has been opened against these Russian citizens on charges of preparing a terrorist attack, Andrei Ravkov, secretary of the Security Council of Belarus, said on Thursday.
According to the Belarus special services, 200 "militants", who, according to Belarusian media, are fighters of Wagner private military company, were transferred from Russia to Belarus, and most of them remain in the country. "They roam somewhere like a needle in a haystack," said Ravkov said.
Minsk appealed to Ukraine for help in connection with this incident. The acting head of the Ukrainian Embassy, Petro Vrublevsky, was invited to the Belarusian Foreign Ministry on Thursday. As a result of the talks, an agreement was reached to "intensify cooperation between border agencies and strengthen the border regime in order to prevent destabilization of the situation," Interfax reported, citing the Belarus Foreign Ministry's press service.
"Given the confirmed information about the participation of a number of detainees in the fighting in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of Ukraine, Ukrainian origin and the Ukrainian citizenship of some of them, Vrublevsky requested relevant information that can be used for a comprehensive analysis and assessment of the reasons for their presence in Belarus," the Belarusian Foreign Ministry said.
Kyiv also intends to initiate the extradition process of the detainees to Ukraine, the Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) said. Most of the detained Russians are in the Ukrainian online database Mirotvorets, which collects information about "Kremlin agents," separatists and militants who fought on the side of the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics.
The Russians, who stayed in the resort "Belarusochka" near Minsk, attracted attention of the resort’s administration with military-style clothing, unusual behavior and the fact that everyone had the same hand luggage. In addition, the group had three heavy suitcases with unknown contents.
The Kremlin hastened to disavow the detainees. "The government is not responsible for the activities of the private military companies, if it is not the client of this company. In this case, as far as I understand, Russia was not a customer, which means that this was just a commercial structure," said Dmitry Novikov, deputy chairman of the State Duma's international affairs committee, as cited by Open Media.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said there were no private military companies in Russia de jure. "There is no such thing as a private military company in Russian law," Peskov said, adding that he "knows nothing" about such structures.
As for the accusations of the Belarusian side, "it is nothing but insinuations," he said. "Russia and Belarus are a union state, they are allies, close partners," Peskov assured, adding that attempts to destabilize the neighboring country ahead of the elections "are out of the question."
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, who in August will face the heaviest re-election in 26 years of his presidency, is not satisfied with comments from Moscow. Following an emergency meeting of the Security Council, he demanded an explanation from "the relevant structures of Russia."
"I look at the reaction of the Russians. They already, making excuses, almost saying that we brought them (the mercenaries) here ourselves,” said Lukashenko. "Clearly, we have to somehow justify our dirty intentions."
Military correspondent Semyon Pegov, who used to work for Life news outlet claims on his Telegram channel War Gonzo, citing sources in the Russian special services, that the "Wagnerians" have nothing to do with the Belarusian elections: the Private Military Company used Minsk as a transit point to transfer fighters to other countries, "mostly African". According to Pegov, the detainees, “were waiting for a flight to the third country”. The first group of mercenaries left Belarus earlier.
"Naturally, the Belarusian special services were informed and warned in advance, and in fact ensured a calm process during the pandemic for the transfer of our fighters to the eastern fronts. Agreements on this transport corridor were reached at the highest level and Lukashenko, of course, was aware why the Wagner contractors were in Minsk and where they were going," Pegov said.
Radio Liberty suggested that the people detained in Minsk were on their way to Sudan. Footage from the detention shows Sudanese banknotes and a phone card showing the Khatmiyah Mosque in the city of Kassala.
International journalist Abbas Juma, who works with the Russian news outlets, RIA FAN, Komsomolskaya Pravda and RT, claims that the detainees have nothing to do with the Wagner PMC. According to him, they are employees of another Private Military Company, "Mar", and were traveling to Libya.