The Belarusian KGB state security service says it has arrested 26 people in the past few days on suspicion of training and preparing for street riots, state media reported, amid wider concerns about a growing crackdown on dissent in the former Soviet republic.
The latests arrests precede new anti-government protests planned on March 25, which the opposition marks as an unofficial Freedom Day. Dozens of activists and opposition members were already arrested or fined in recent weeks as what began as a protest against a new tax on the unemployed grew into an anti-government campaign. The EU has called for the release of all detained peaceful protesters.
According to Belarusian government-controlled media reports, the 26 people just arrested include activists of the formally dissolved White Legion nationalist organisation and another group called Young Front. The ex-White Legion members are "professionally trained militants" aged 25-43, who allegedly plan to use weapons during protests in Minsk, KGB sources were quoted as saying.
There were also reports of foreign journalists from France 24 TV, RFE/RL and Ukrainian media being detained on March 24 but being quickly released.
There was no confirmation of the state media arrest reports from independent sources, including human right watchdogs and lawyers. Experts note that the country's authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko personally controls the law enforcement agencies, which have a track record of using provocations against political opponents.
The KGB opened a criminal case over the claimed training and preparation for mass unrest. Law enforcers reportedly conducted dozens of searches of suspects' homes and are said to have seized a Kalashnikov assault rifle, three carbines, two pistols, rounds of ammunition, hand grenades, knives, axes, components and substances for making explosive devices, military uniform, bulletproof vests, and helmets.
The KGB were said to have seized "Nato military first-aid kits, urban combat manuals and flags and various items bearing the emblems of volunteer military units fighting in eastern Ukraine", state media reported.
On March 23, Lukashenko said during a meeting with his law enforcement agencies that "we are not afraid of anything or anyone". The president rejected claims that the authorities "start threatening people" before new anti-government protests in Belarus.
"I know some people hold such crazy opinions. I want to tell these people that the government is not afraid of anyone," BelTA news agency quoted Lukashenko as saying. "This especially pertains to the president. We pursue an honest and sincere policy."
Belarus has seen several weeks of street protests, headed by opposition activists, in a number of cities. The demonstrations began in February over the introduction of a BYN360 (€180) payment to the state budget for people who failed to pay taxes to the government in 2015 but resided longer that 183 days in the country that year. However, the demands of protesters grew to include broader anti-government slogans, including calls for free and fair parliamentary and presidential elections.
Lukashenko also claimed that a couple of dozen people "were training in camps with weapons" allegedly located in Ukraine, Lithuania and Poland with a view to stirring unrest in Belarus.
The statement triggered swift negative reactions in Kyiv and Vilnius. Specifically, the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry rejected Lukashenko's comments as "provocative and harmful to the development of good neighbourly relations" between the two countries.
"It is Belarus' partner [...] the Russian Federation, which as part of its hybrid aggression set up training camps for mercenaries and militants both on its territory and in the occupied parts of Ukraine," Kyiv said. "Through supporting and exporting terrorism, Russia is purposefully undermining stability and security in the region, which includes both Ukraine and Belarus."