MINSK: Strongman leader Alexander Lukashenko demanded an explanation from Moscow on Wednesday after Belarus arrested Russian mercenaries allegedly plotting to destabilise the country ahead of next month’s presidential election.

The surprise announcement is the latest twist in an extraordinary election campaign that has seen the 65-year-old leader, who has dominated Belarus for nearly three decades, jail his key would-be rivals ahead of the vote.

“It is necessary to immediately turn to appropriate Russian structures so that they explain what is going on,” Lukashenko told the head of the KGB security service at an emergency meeting.

Earlier in the day the Belarus security service arrested a group of 32 Russian fighters allegedly plotting to destabilise the country, state media said.

KGB chief Valery Vakulchik told Lukashenko that the detained men were members of the Wagner group, a shadowy private military firm that is reportedly controlled by an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin and promotes Moscow’s interests in Ukraine, Syria and Libya.

The arrests came less than two weeks before Belarus holds a tense presidential election on August 9, in which Lukashenko is seeking a sixth term, as public discontent builds over his policies.

Ahead of the polls, opposition protests have erupted across the ex-Soviet country of 9.5 million people, with a 37-year-old woman political novice, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, quickly emerging as Lukashenko’s top rival.

Lukashenko has accused some of his critics of being controlled by “puppeteers” in Moscow.

State news agency Belta said the authorities had received information about the arrival of 200 fighters in Belarus “to destabilise the situation during the election campaign”. Belta did not say where the remaining suspected militants were.

The men sported “military-style clothing” and carried heavy cases, the news agency said. Belta also said the alleged militants gave themselves away because unlike ordinary Russian tourists, they did not drink.

“They did not consume alcohol or visit entertainment venues, they kept to themselves in order not to attract attention,” the news agency said.

Published in Dawn, July 30th, 2020