Belarus Rejects EU Lawmakers As Monitors

By YURAS KARMANAU Associated Press Writer

c 2006 The Associated Press

MINSK, Belarus - The Foreign Ministry said Friday a group of European Union lawmakers were not welcome to monitor next week's presidential election in Belarus, accusing the legislators of intending to provoke conflicts.

Seven members of the European Parliament are seeking to monitor the March 19 election, in which authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko is running for a third term amid opposition warnings of possible election fraud.

"The goal of these so-called 'observers' is to provoke conflict situations during the election campaign and destabilize the situation in the country," Foreign Ministry spokesman Andrei Popov said. About 900 observers from ex-Soviet republics and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe will be enough to monitor the election, he said.

Bogdan Klikh, one of the European parliament lawmakers, said he and his colleagues possessed diplomatic passports and would still go.

"If Belarusian authorities claim that elections are taking place democratically, why can't we see that?" Klikh told The Associated Press.

Last month, authorities detained and charged four activists of the Partnership group who planned to monitor the election. The former Soviet republic's security agency chief accused them of plotting to seize power.

Meanwhile, the Justice Ministry accused journalists and media outlets it did not identify of discrediting and slandering Belarus and its leader, warning them that "inciting anti-government hysteria, attempting to destabilize the situation in the country" is punishable by law.

Lukashenko has ruled this nation of 10 million with an iron fist since 1994, quashing dissent and opposition and maintaining his grip on power through votes dismissed as illegitimate by his critics. The United States has dubbed him "Europe's last dictator."

Also Friday, rights groups and opposition members said police have detained six activists and government opponents, including Sergei Antonchik, a former lawmaker who has criticized Lukashenko over alleged corruption, in the latest series of detentions of opposition supporters. Police declined to comment.

"The authorities are conducting a cleansing on the eve of possible rallies by the opposition on March 19," said Vladimir Labkovich of the human rights group Vesna. "It looks like there is a list of the most active members who need to be neutralized."