Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky asked Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko to hand over several dozen Russian mercenaries arrested by the Belarusian KGB last week, Al Jazeera reported Wednesday.
"I hope that all those suspected of terrorist activity on Ukrainian soil will be handed over to us for a criminal investigation conducted according to international law," Zelensky told Lukashenko over the phone, according to a statement released by the Ukrainian President's Office.
Some 33 Russian mercenaries were arrested by Belarusian state security last week amid rising tensions ahead of the republic's upcoming presidential election on August 9. President Lukashenko has been ruling the republic since 1994.
A wave of mass protests took place in "Europe's last dictatorship" several weeks ago as the only non-jailed challenger of Lukashenko was disqualified, according to DW and Belarusian non-state media.
The crowds were met with riot police and air raid sirens used to disperse the demonstrators. At least 420 protesters and journalists have been arrested by the Belarusian authorities following the demonstrations, according to civil-rights watchdog Viasna (Spring) quoted by Belarusian media site Tut.by.
As thousands rallied in support of the presidential candidate Sviatlana Tsichanouskaya, the wife of a jailed opposition leader, Lukashenko warned the public of a Belarusian "Maidan," referencing the 2014 violent removal of Ukraine's pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovich.
"Nowadays, wars start from street protests and demonstrations," Lukashenko said in a July speech to the Belarusian Defense Forces, according to state-run news agency BelTA.
The Belarusian authorities opened a criminal investigation last week into the 33 suspected of "the preparation of terrorist acts," according to Reuters.
Russian media reported Moscow denied the official, legal existence of private military companies on its soil and claimed the arrested were civilians detained for crossing into Belarus via a third country. In a Tuesday speech, Lukashenko accused Moscow of lying.Russian Security Council head and former prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev, said the arrest of the alleged mercenaries would have "sad consequences" for the countries' bilateral relations, Radio Free Europe reported Wednesday.
According to Ukraine's Zelensky, 28 of the 33 suspects detained by Belarus' Committee for State Security (KDB in Belarusian or KGB in Russian) engaged in armed conflict in the region of Donbass in the country's southeast.
According to DW, Wagner's PMC, the organization allegedly employing the detainees, is an unofficial military unit operating outside of Russia's borders.
Officially illegal under Russian law, the company employs between 1,350 and 2,500 mercenaries and has acted as Moscow's proxy in eastern Ukraine, Syria, Libya, Sudan and other warzones, DW reported.