Kyiv says it will seek the extradition of alleged contractors from the Russian private military company Vagner being held in Belarus as Moscow demanded their release, saying they were in transit and headed to Turkey.
Belarusian authorities have launched an investigation against 33 Russian contractors from Vagner who were detained earlier this week. Authorities allege they wanted to destabilize the country ahead of the August 9 presidential election.
Moscow has vehemently rejected Minsk’s claims, with Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov saying on July 31 that the 33 men 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, calling for their release.
Meanwhile, the office of the Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said that Kyiv wants the detained Russians who “took part in war crimes”during the conflict with Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine to be extradited to the country.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said on July 31 that Minsk had provided Kyiv with the list of the Vagner contactors detained in Belarus, adding that some of those listed are Ukrainian citizens suspected of taking part in military operations against the country’s armed forces in the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk during a conflict that has killed some 13,200 people since April 2014.
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.
The chief 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 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 activists and bloggers – as well as some candidates.