Russia denies men arrested in Belarus were plotting riots during election campaign

A Belarusian law enforcement official has rejected Moscow's explanation after 33 people were arrested

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Russia and Belarus are involved in escalating tensions after a group of Russians were detained, accused of being mercenaries with orders to destabilise the country less than two weeks before an election

Russia has denied allegations that the men were plotting to organise riots ahead of the presidential elections, and insists the men are private security contractors who were in transit for Turkey.

A Belarusian law enforcement official, Alexander Agafonov, has rejected Moscow's explanation.

Andrei Ravkov, the head of State Secretary of the Security Council of Belarus walks after speaking to the media in Minsk, Belarus, Thursday, July 30, 2020. Belarusian authorities opened a criminal case on the charges of plotting a terrorist act against 33 Russian private military contractors detained earlier this week, Security Council secretary Andrei Ravkov said Thursday. The Russian contractors were detained on Wednesday by the Belarusian State Security Committee and accused of planning to destabilize Belarus ahead of the presidential election. (AP Photo/Sergei Grits)

The arrest of the 33 men in camouflage gear prior to presidential election in Belarus, scheduled to take place on August 9, has raised stakes Moscow and Minsk.

Belarus has also launched a manhunt in case other members of the group evaded capture.

Agafonov, the head of the Belarusian team investigating the case, said the detained Russians had no plans to fly to Istanbul, and that tickets carried by some of the men were "alibis".

He told the ONT TV channel in Minsk they had given "contradictory accounts" about the purpose of their stay in Belarus.

Agafonov was quoted as saying 11 of the arrested men planned to fly to Venezuela, 15 to Turkey, two to Cuba and one to Syria. Another said he did not know his destination, while three refused to make a statement.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov described the arrested men as members of a private security company.

"We can now say with a high degree of certainty that these Russian nationals were in transit in Belarus. Their stay [in Belarus] was in no way connected with Belarus or the goings-on in Belarus, " Peskov told reporters.
So far, Alexander Lukashenko, the president of Belarus and a long-time Moscow ally, has stopped short of blaming Russia for sending the men.

The Belarusian authorities say they believe the husband of opposition presidential candidate Svetlana Tikhanouskaya may have ties to the detained group and have also launched a criminal case against him on suspicion of inciting riots.