Belarus says it’s arrested Russian mercenaries, as rift grows between strongmen Putin and Lukashenko

The detentions come as tensions grow between the neighboring countries and as a rift emerges between their two strongmen leaders, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, once staunch allies.

Belarusian law enforcement agencies said Wednesday that they had received information about more than 200 militants arriving in Belarus, more than 30 of whom were detained and identified as fighters from the Wagner private military company, a shadowy enterprise widely believed to be sponsored by St. Petersburg businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin.

Prigozhin is a Russian oligarch often referred to as “Putin’s chef” for his close ties to the Kremlin. Wagner fighters have been previously deployed to Ukraine, Syria and Libya, among other places.

Belarus is holding presidential elections on August 9 following weeks of mass protests in support of opposition candidates and against Lukashenko’s sixth reelection campaign. Lukashenko is likely to use his powerful propaganda machine to project an image of himself as a defender of the country against foreign threats.

Belarusian state TV released video of the raid showing several of the men being detained in a hotel room. One man is shown handcuffed faced down in bed. The video also showed alleged personal possessions of detainees, including passports, US dollars, other foreign currency and phones.

Prigozhin’s Concord group of companies repeated its denial that Prigozhin owned Wagner, in a comment posted on their VKontakte social media page late Wednesday. Prigozhin “has nothing to do with Wagner, does not finance them and does not follow their whereabouts,” it said.

Prigozhin was sanctioned by the US for funding the Internet Research Agency, which US intelligence agencies say meddled in the 2016 US presidential election.

Lukashenko accused of playing politics

Belta published a list containing the full names of what it said were the detained men. The Belarusian state security committee arrested the suspects with the help of special police units. The Belarusian investigative committee has opened an inquiry.

Lukashenko said he would be demanding an explanation from Russia, according to Belta. The Russian embassy in Belarus said in a tweet it had received an official notification from the authorities regarding the detentions. The Russian foreign ministry did not immediately respond to CNN’s request for comment.

Russian writer Zakhar Prilepin, who previously fought in eastern Ukraine on the separatists; side, wrote on his Facebook page that he had identified several men who served in his battalion among those arrested in Belarus. He suggested that the men were most likely passing through Belarus to fight elsewhere, and that their detentions were being used by Lukashenko for leverage ahead of the election.

'Better to die standing than to live on your knees,' says Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko at ice hockey match

“There are indeed several former fighters from our battalion (which no longer exists, might I remind you). It’s also well known that people who were or are fighting in Donetsk and Luhansk republics fight in different places too, they also go to Syria and other warm warring countries,” Prilepin wrote.

“But if the Belarusian leadership starts using this story for its own purposes, it will certainly look ridiculous. This looks like a well-known story when well-trained people move to certain destinations where they have their own business, they do not need Belarus,” Prilepin added. “And I’m sure the Belarusian special services are well aware that three dozen men in camouflage were going somewhere else.”

The US military recently accused Russia of sending Wagner mercenaries, along with weapons like anti-aircraft systems, to operate on the front lines of the conflict in Libya. The US Africa Command has also released satellite photos that they say show Wagner vehicles and Russian military equipment in Libya supporting anti-government rebels in the country’s civil war.

“Russia uses Wagner Group as a proxy in Libya to establish a long-term presence on the Mediterranean Sea,” the Africa Command said in a statement.

“They continue to look to attempt to gain a foothold in Libya,” said Brig. Gen. Gregory Hadfield, the command’s deputy director of intelligence, in the statement.

Among the detained men’s items confiscated by authorities at the hotel was a document written in Arabic, showing a prayer used by a Muslim Sunni religious order called al-Qadiriyya, popular among Muslims in Arab countries in Northern Africa. The document and foreign currency found in their belongings suggest that the fighters may have been traveling to another destination via the Belarusian capital.

“The visitors drew attention to themselves as they behaved uncharacteristically for Russian tourists and wore a uniform, military-style clothing. They didn’t drink alcohol, didn’t visit any places of entertainment, [and] kept themselves away from everyone to try and not to draw attention to themselves,” Belta report said.

Aleksey Kondratyev, a Russian senator and colonel with the military’s GRU intelligence unit, said the details of the detentions needed to be “checked and law enforcement of both countries needs to cooperate on this,” Russian state-run news agency RIA Novosti reported.