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Belarus Says Russian Mercenaries Planned to Disrupt August Election


Mr. Lukashenko, who has a reputation for erratic behavior and wild claims, announced on Tuesday that he had been infected by the coronavirus but had fully recovered without treatment. That announcement was greeted with skepticism, as it played into his longstanding position that the pandemic poses no serious danger to public health and can be kept at bay by drinking vodka, riding tractors and playing ice hockey.

In June, Mr. Lukashenko had two would-be rival candidates in Belarus’s Aug. 9 presidential elections arrested on corruption charges, claiming that he had thwarted a plot to foment revolution by Russian interests.

On Wednesday, the government released video footage of a nighttime raid this week on a sanitarium near Minsk, where 32 Russian fighters were arrested; another one was arrested in a different part of the country. The video featured heavily armed officers from Belarus’s security service — still called, as in Soviet days, the K.G.B. — storming into guest rooms occupied by the alleged mercenaries. It showed a number of beefy Russians in handcuffs, one of them lying on the floor in boxer briefs, Russian passports and a stack of $100 bills.

But belongings seized in the raid also included bank notes and telephone cards from Sudan and texts written in Arabic, which to some analysts suggested the arrested Russians may have been en route to or from North Africa, rather than on a mission targeting Belarus.

The arrested Russians, according to a report by Belta, aroused suspicion as soon as they arrived in Belarus because each man had three heavy suitcases, wore military-style clothing and behaved in ways “uncharacteristic for Russian tourists,” shunning alcohol and avoiding night clubs.

Wagner Group, the mercenary outfit accused of employing the men, has sent fighters, mostly veterans of Russia’s armed forces, to Syria, Libya, Sudan and various other countries. According to United States officials, it is controlled by Mr. Prigozhin, known as “Putin’s chef” because of his success in winning catering contracts from the Russian military.

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