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A picture taken during a press tour provided by the Russian Armed Forces on September 15, 2017 shows Russian soldiers standing guard in a central street in Syria's eastern city of Deir Ezzor, as locals pass by. / AFP PHOTO / France2 / Dominique DERDA

UPDATES – Latest revelations on Russian mercenaries

A Russian diplomat said on Monday a group of more than 30 suspected Russian mercenaries detained in Belarus last week were only passing through Minsk and were on their way to an unnamed Latin American state.
Belarusian authorities have said they suspect the men entered their country to plot “acts of terrorism” and destabilise it before an Aug. 9 presidential election.
Russian officials have dismissed the accusation and described the men as employees of a private security firm. The Russian state says it does not use mercenaries.
The standoff could further strain relations between Minsk and its traditional ally Russia, which soured after the neighbours failed to agree on an oil supply contract for this year.
“Their final destination was one of the states in the Latin American region,” the diplomat, Kirill Pletnyev, was quoted as saying on Monday by the Russian RIA news agency.
Belarus granted Pletnyev consular access to the detained men, RIA added. His quotes did not name the Latin American country or give any more details on the identity of the men.
Russia has close relations with a number of Latin American countries including Venezuela, and sent dozens of military personnel to Caracas last year, describing them as military specialists.
On Friday, Alexander Agafonov, the head of the Belarusian investigative group that is handling the case, said the arrested men – some of whom were wearing army fatigues – had given “contradictory accounts” about their plans.
He was quoted as saying that 11 of the arrested men had told authorities they planned to fly on 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.
Belarus leader Alexander Lukashenko, who has said he wants a full explanation from Russia, faces his biggest electoral test in years on Aug. 9 as public anger swells over his handling of COVID-19, the economy and human
rights.
UPDATE

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko accused Moscow on Tuesday of lying in a row about the arrest of a group of Russian security contractors in Minsk, and said unnamed forces were plotting a revolution that would fail.

In a fiery address to the nation as early voting began in an election in which he is seeking to extend his 26-year rule, Lukashenko said he would protect Belarus from opponents he portrayed as wreckers controlled by “puppet masters” abroad.

He faces his toughest challenge for years in Sunday’s election because of public anger over his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, the economy and human rights in the strategically important east European country of 9.5 million.

Before the election there have been mass protests, some of Lukashenko’s opponents have been arrested on what they call trumped-up charges and Minsk has said it suspects the security contractors arrested this month were preparing “terrorist acts”.

Russia has said the detained men were transiting Belarus to a third country, but Lukashenko said those assertions were “all lies”.

“These people have given testimony and said they were sent specially to Belarus. Their order was to wait (for further instructions),” he said.

Lukashenko said Belarus had information about a second group of fighters deployed in the south of the country. He cited no evidence but said they would be hunted down.

Addressing Russia, he said: “Stop lying. You have already disgraced yourselves.”

Russia, whose oil exports run through Belarus to the West and has long regarded the country as a buffer zone against NATO, is watching the outcome of events in the country closely, as is the West which has tried to lure Minsk from Moscow’s orbit.

“COLOUR REVOLUTIONS”

Belarus said earlier on Tuesday it would conduct military training for reservists near the border with Russia from Aug. 11. Moscow said on Monday more than 3,000 men and 800 vehicles would take part in war games in regions that neighbour Belarus.

Lukashenko, who is seeking his sixth term, cast himself as a guarantor of stability and said Belarus was threatened by opponents beholden to foreign forces seeking more of the “colour revolutions” that toppled leaders in other ex-Soviet republics.

“They decided to try these colour revolutions on us, using new information technology,” he said.

He said the economic fallout from COVID-19 had shown the need for a strong state, and warned: “Don’t believe those who promise wonders – miracles don’t happen.”

He said he would double salaries in the next five years and protect pensions, and rejected opponents’ calls to revert to a constitution setting a two-term limit on the presidency.

His main election opponent is Svetlana Tikhanouskaya, a former teacher whose husband was arrested and prevented from taking part. Western observers do not judge elections in Belarus to be free and fair.

Source: Reuters
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