MOSCOW – The Kremlin demanded Friday that Belarus quickly release 33 Russian private security contractors it detained on terrorism charges, dismissing accusations of plots during the Belarus presidential campaign as bogus.
The allegations represent an unprecedented escalation of tensions between Russia and neighboring Belarus, traditionally close allies, as Belarus' President Alexander Lukashenko seeks a sixth term in the Aug. 9 election.
Belarusian officials said the employees of private Russian military contractor Wagner, who were detained Wednesday, are facing a criminal probe on charges of plotting terror attacks in Belarus amid the country’s presidential election campaign.
The Ukrainian authorities, meanwhile, said Friday they will ask Belarus to hand over 28 of the detainees on charges of fighting alongside Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine.
The Wagner company is linked to Yevgeny Prigozhin, a Russian businessman who was indicted in the United States for meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. The firm has allegedly deployed hundreds of military contractors to eastern Ukraine, Syria and Libya.
Independent observers and opposition supporters in Belarus see the detention of the Russians as part of the authoritarian Lukashenko’s efforts to shore up sagging public support.
The Kremlin, which first reacted cautiously to Belarus' move, toughened its stance Friday. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Russia expects Belarus to quickly free the detainees.
“The unwarranted detention of the 33 Russian citizens doesn't fit into the framework of the allied relations,” Peskov said during a conference call with reporters. “We expect our Belarusian allies to clear up this incident immediately and release our citizens.”