The head of Belarus’ Investigative Committee Ivan Noskevich told president Alexander Lukashenko that some of the 33 Russian mercenaries detained in Belarus said they were on their way to Istanbul to see the Hagia Sophia cathedral.

Last week, Belarus authorities detained the men after receiving information that more than 200 fighters had entered the country to destabilise it before the August 9 presidential election

Belarus’ KGB security service said the men worked for the Russian Wagner Group, a private military firm which promotes Moscow’s interests in Ukraine, Syria and Libya. The group is reportedly linked to Yevgeny Prigozhin, an ally of Russia’s president Vladimir Putin, who was indicted in the United States for meddling in the 2016 presidential election.

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The Kremlin on Friday said the Russian men were “employees of a private security company” who were staying temporarily in Belarus before traveling onward to Istanbul.

The men gave conflicting testimonies during questioning, with “less than half” saying the group planned to fly from Minsk to Istanbul and the rest naming “completely different destinations”, Noskevich told Lukashenko.

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Some said they were planning to vacation, some said they were going to work as guards and some said they planned to see Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia cathedral. Noskevich said that while the group had purchased flight tickets to Istanbul, they never went to the airport.

“There was no [plan for] Istanbul and could not be. It is clear that this group had other goals”, Lukashenko said.

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Lukashenko is running for the sixth consecutive term in the presidential election. He is expected to win the election despite growing protests from the opposition. Belarus relies on subsidies and political support from Moscow. Lukashenko has repeatedly accused Russia of trying to force Belarus to abandon its post-Soviet independence.

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