Russia and Belarus at odds over arrest of suspected mercenaries
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 arrests soon before an Aug. 9 presidential election in Belarus 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.
Russia said on Thursday that the men, who it described as employees of 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 is handling the case, said late on Friday that the men - some of whom were wearing army fatigues - had no plans to fly further to Istanbul.
Authorities in Minsk said a day earlier they believe the husband of opposition presidential candidate Svetlana Tikhanouskaya may have ties to the group, launching a criminal case against him on suspicion of inciting riots.
Agafonov told a local television station the men's onward tickets to Istanbul were only "alibis", and said they had given "contradictory accounts" about the purpose of their stay in Belarus.
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.
Dmitry Mezentsev, Russia's ambassador to Belarus, earlier denied any connection between the detained men and domestic affairs in Belarus.
He said they had stopped in Belarus en route, via Istanbul, to a third unnamed country and were not involved in any way with the domestic affairs of Belarus.
Sergei Naryshkin, head of Russia's Foreign Intelligence Service, said on Saturday he hoped the incident would be resolved.
"This is in the interests of development of friendly and brotherly relations between our two countries and two peoples," Naryshkin was quoted as saying by RIA news agency.
(Reporting by Vladimir Soldatkin; Editing by Helen Popper and Edmund Blair)
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