Kremlin sternly urges Belarus to free detained Russians

Belarusians attend a meeting in support of Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, candidate for the presidential elections in Minsk, Belarus, Thursday, July 30, 2020...
Maria Kolesnikova, a representative of Viktor Babariko, right, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, candidate for the presidential elections, centre, and wife of n...
Belarusians wearing face masks to protect against coronavirus, attend a meeting in support of Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, candidate for the presidential e...
Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko, right, inspects police vehicles as he visits the Belarusian Interior Ministry special forces base in Minsk, Be...
FILE - In this file photo taken on Tuesday, June 30, 2020, Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, and Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko greet...
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, centre right, listens to Valery Vakulchik, chief of the Belarusian state security service, KGB, during a me...

Belarusians attend a meeting in support of Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, candidate for the presidential elections in Minsk, Belarus, Thursday, July 30, 2020...

Maria Kolesnikova, a representative of Viktor Babariko, right, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, candidate for the presidential elections, centre, and wife of n...

Belarusians wearing face masks to protect against coronavirus, attend a meeting in support of Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, candidate for the presidential e...

Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko, right, inspects police vehicles as he visits the Belarusian Interior Ministry special forces base in Minsk, Be...

FILE - In this file photo taken on Tuesday, June 30, 2020, Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, and Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko greet...

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, centre right, listens to Valery Vakulchik, chief of the Belarusian state security service, KGB, during a me...

MOSCOW (AP) — The Kremlin on Friday demanded that Belarus quickly release 33 Russian private security contractors detained on terrorism charges, dismissing the accusations as bogus.

Belarusian officials said the employees of private Russian military contractor Wagner are facing a criminal probe on charges of plotting terror attacks in Belarus amid the country's presidential election campaign. The contractors were detained Wednesday.

The allegations represent an unprecedented escalation of tensions between Russia and Belarus, traditionally close allies, as Belarus' President Alexander Lukashenko seeks a sixth term in the Aug. 9 election. Independent observers and opposition supporters in Belarus see the detention of the Russians as part of the authoritarian Lukashenko's efforts to shore up sagging public support.

The Kremlin, which first reacted cautiously to Belarus' move, toughened its stance Friday. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Russia expects Belarus to quickly free the detainees.

“The unwarranted detention of the 33 Russian citizens doesn't fit into the framework of the allied relations,” Peskov said during a conference call with reporters. “We expect our Belarusian allies to clear up this incident in the nearest time and release our citizens.”

Peskov said members of a Russian security firm were en route to an unspecified country and missed a connecting flight to Istanbul at the Belarusian capital’s airport. “They have done nothing wrong and carried no illegal items,” he added.

The Wagner company is linked to Yevgeny Prigozhin, a Russian businessman who was indicted in the United States for meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. The firm has allegedly deployed hundreds of military contractors to eastern Ukraine, Syria and Libya.

Many observers have pointed out that Belarus long has provided a transit corridor for sensitive Russian operations abroad, alleging that Lukashenko now is trying to use a routine Russian deployment for his own political gain.

Throughout his 26 years as president, Lukashenko, a former collective farm director, has relied on Russian subsidies to keep the nation’s Soviet-style economy running but resisted Moscow’s push for closer integration of the neighboring nations. He frequently accused the Kremlin of harboring plans to incorporate Belarus and vowed to resist them.

The 65-year-old Belarusian leader is campaigning to retain his post amid a wave of opposition protests driven by public weariness with his iron-fisted rule and a bruising economic damage from the coronavirus pandemic.

Election officials have denied candidate registration to his two main challengers, one of whom was jailed. The other fled to Russia with his children.

The opposition has united behind a third candidate, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the wife of a jailed opposition blogger. On Thursday, Belarus’ Investigative Committee linked the detained Russians to her husband as part of a criminal investigation into alleged preparations for staging “mass riots.”

Speaking Thursday at a rally in Minsk that drew tens of thousands of people in the biggest demonstration since the presidential campaign's start, Tikhanovskaya dismissed the charges against her husband as a crude fabrication.

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Yuras Karmanau in Minsk contributed to this report.