Russian diplomats have met in a Minsk jail with a group of contractors from the Russian private military firm Vagner who’ve been detained on suspicion of trying to destabilize Belarus ahead of its August 9 presidential election.
Representatives from the consular section of Russia’s embassy in Minsk visited the 33 detainees late on July 31, according to a Twitter statement from the Russian Embassy. The Kremlin has demanded their release, saying their arrests were “unreasonable.”
The Vagner Group is a Russian paramilitary organization believed to be run by Yevgeny Prigozhin, an influential Russian businessman close to President Vladimir Putin. Its fighters have turned up in conflicts in Ukraine, Syria, Libya, and Africa.
Earlier this week, 32 contractors from Vagner were detained near Minsk while another was detained in southern Belarus.
The Ukrainian Prosecutor-General’s Office said on July 31 that Kyiv would ask Belarus to hand over 28 of the detainees on charges of fighting alongside Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine. It said nine Ukrainian citizens are among the 28.
However, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on August 1 that Moscow considers all of the detainees to be Russian citizens.
Peskov also has rejected Minsk’s claims that the group planned to interfere in Belarus’s presidential election. He says the 33 men were detained while they were in transit to Istanbul before flying to “a third country.”
“Their stay is connected neither to Belarus itself nor its internal affairs,” Peskov told reporters on July 31.
However, Alyaksandr Agafonov, who leads the Belarusian investigation, says the men’s plans for onward travel were just “an alibi.”
Agafonov also said that the “evidence about the reasons for their stay in Belarus is incoherent and contradictory.”
The head of the Belarusian Security Council, Andrey Raukou, said on July 30 that “upwards of up to 200 militants” remain at large in Belarus and efforts to locate them continue.
The August 9 presidential vote in Belarus is shaping up to be a tough race for incumbent Alyaksandr Lukashenka, an authoritarian leader who has been in power since 1994.
Lukashenka has cracked down on the opposition during the campaign, with the arrest of hundreds of people, including journalists, bloggers, and political activists. Charges were pressed against two potential candidates.