Russia and Belarus at odds over suspected mercenaries' travel plans

MOSCOW (Reuters) – A dispute between Moscow and Minsk over the detention of more than 30 men who Belarus accused of being Russian mercenaries deepened on Saturday, as the two sides contradicted each other about the group’s plans.

The disagreement comes at a time of strained diplomatic relations between Belarus and its traditional ally Russia, with ties soured after the neighbours failed to agree on an oil supply contract for this year.

A Belarusian law enforcement official said late on Friday that the suspected Russian mercenaries were arrested on Thursday in Belarus, rejecting Moscow’s assertion that the group had planned to fly onwards to Istanbul.

Russia said on Thursday that the men, who were employed by a private security firm, had stayed in Belarus after missing their connecting flight to Istanbul.

But Alexander Agafonov, the head of the Belarusian investigative group which looks into the case, said late on Friday that the men had no plans to fly further to Istanbul.

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 that 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.

He said the plane tickets to Istanbul were only “alibis”.

The arrest of the camouflaged men prior to presidential election in Belarus set for Aug. 9 could further strain ties between Moscow and Minsk.

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

Moscow denied on Saturday any links between the Belarus opposition and the detained men, a Russian diplomat in Minsk said, according to Russia’s RIA news agency.

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