By Andrei Makhovsky and Tom Balmforth
MINSK/MOSCOW, Aug 6 – Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko said on Thursday a number of U.S. nationals had been detained before a presidential election on Sunday, but did not say when or why.
The veteran leader is facing the biggest challenge in years to his long rule and has launched a crackdown on opposition protesters whom he accuses of plotting with foreign backers to overthrow him.
Belarus has sought to mend fences with the Washington as ties fray with traditional ally Moscow, and in February hosted Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the most senior U.S. official to visit in more than two decades.
“Some people were detained with American passports, married to Americans, working in the State Department,” the Belta news agency quoted Lukashenko as saying.
The U.S. embassy in the capital Minsk did not immediately reply to a request for comment.
Earlier on Thursday, Belarus and Russia had traded barbs again over a group of suspected Russian mercenaries who were detained in Belarus in July and accused of plotting to foment unrest.
Russia has said the men were employees of a private security firm and were passing through Belarus on their way to Latin America.
“The guilt of the detained citizens in Belarus is not backed up by any evidence. They must return to Russia,” Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova was quoted by the Interfax news agency as saying.
A 65-year-old former Soviet collective farm manager, Lukashenko has brooked little opposition to his rule since he rose to power in 1994. But he faces a wave of dissent over his handling of the coronavirus pandemic and the economy, and his human rights record.
More than 1,300 people have been detained in a widening crackdown, rights groups say.
Lukashenko’s main challenger is Svetlana Tikhanouskaya, who decided to run for president after her husband, who had hoped to be a candidate, was arrested in May.
A former English teacher, Tikhanouskaya plans a mass rally on Thursday evening despite a ban by the authorities. Her campaign chief was released after being briefly detained. (Writing by Matthias Williams, editing by Timothy Heritage)