Moscow, Jul 30 (efe-epa).- Belarusian security forces said Thursday they are searching for almost 200 Russian mercenaries after the arrest of 33 suspected private military contractors days before a presidential election.
Andrei Ravkov, Secretary of State of the Security Council of Belarus, said the men worked for Wagner, Russia’s top private military contractor.
“There are 33 detainees and up to 200 others in Belarusian territory,” he told Russian news agency Interfax.
“The search for them is being carried out but it is like finding a needle in a haystack.”
He added that the detainees who were arrested on Wednesday were being questioned and that a criminal case has been launched for preparation of terrorist acts.
Russia’s ambassador to Belarus Dmitry Mezentsev has been summoned to the foreign ministry headquarters in Minsk over the arrests.
It is a sign of escalating tensions between the neighboring countries.
The Wagner company has links to Russian oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin, who is close to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Russian media have speculated that the men were in Belarus on their way to other countries, as Wagner has been involved in conflicts in Syria and Libya.
Ravkov dismissed this suggestion at an emergency meeting of the Belarusian Security Council on Wednesday.
“If it had been a transfer of a private military company through the territory of Belarus, there would have been clarification through some services. It’s a very serious matter,” he was quoted as saying by Belarusian state news agency BelTA.
He added that Belarusian authorities did not receive any information from Russia’s Federal Security Service or military intelligence.
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, who is seeking his sixth consecutive term in office in the elections on 9 August, has ordered security measures to be strengthened in the country.
Belarus allegedly received information that more than 200 Russian fighters had entered the country to destabilize it ahead of the presidential election.
Some observers have criticized the move as a campaign stunt by Lukashenko.
Maria Kolesnikova, a representative of one of the opposition candidates, said it could be part of a plan by the president to ban mass events.
The Russian state denies it uses mercenaries. EFE-EPA