Belarus has opened a criminal probe into planned “terrorist acts” by Russian mercenaries arrested ahead of the August 9 presidential election.

On Wednesday, the country’s special forces arrested 33 Russian mercenaries that Belarus’ KGB security service said worked for the Russian military contractor Wagner.

The Wagner Group is 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, who was indicted in the United States for meddling in the 2016 presidential election.

Belarus’ security council chief Andrei Ravkov on Thursday said that the men face charges of preparing “terrorist acts”. “Thirty-three have been detained; there are up to 200 or thereabouts on the territory”, Ravkov said, adding that the ongoing search to find the others was “like looking for needles in a haystack”.

On Thursday, Russia’s ambassador to Belarus Dmitry Mezentsev was summoned to the foreign ministry, where he rejected the accusations. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Moscow wanted an exhaustive explanation from Belarus about the detention.

President Alexander 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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