Belarus detains opposition leader, bars monitors ahead of presidential vote

MINSK, Belarus (AP) - Authorities detained a major opposition party leader Wednesday and barred three members of an international monitoring mission from the country before a weekend presidential election that the opposition fears will be rigged.

Authoritarian incumbent Alexander Lukashenko, who has ruled the ex-Soviet republic since 1994 and has been branded "Europe's last dictator" by the West, is seeking five more years at the helm after pushing through a referendum scrapping term limits.

The main opposition candidate, Alexander Milinkevich, has called for peaceful protests if the vote is considered fraudulent, but a government ban on rallies has potentially set the stage for violent confrontation during Sunday's election in the country of 10 million.

"The main weapon of the authorities is force. Our weapon is the truth," Milinkevich told a news conference, saying that more than 300 opposition activists have been detained or otherwise punished in recent days and that more than 50 remained behind bars.

Anatoly Lebedko, a top official in Milinkevich's campaign, told The Associated Press he was detained outside his office and accused of resisting police and swearing. Also Wednesday, two Poles and a German travelling to Belarus as part of an Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe observer team were denied entry, an OSCE spokeswoman said.

In an interview with The AP, Foreign Minister Sergei Martynov said the OSCE's missions are fundamentally flawed and the West has prejudged the election as inadequate.

Meanwhile, students and others continued casting ballots in early voting that the opposition says is a ploy by the state to allow for falsifications including ballot-stuffing at unguarded, unmonitored polling stations.

The government, however, accuses the West of seeking to push Lukashenko out of power. The state-run newspaper Sovietskaya Belorussiya suggested the opposition had help from "those who received a cheque abroad and an order to change our life."

Adam Ereli, a spokesman for the U.S. State Department, said the United States and its European allies were concerned that the country "acts in such a flagrant disregard of its own commitments and international standards."

Lukashenko has vowed to prevent the kind of change that swept Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan, where street protests after disputed elections have helped bring opposition leaders to power. He has accused the West of seeking to foment similar protests in Belarus.

"We will not let anyone destabilize the situation here," Lukashenko said in televised comments, claiming that activists from abroad "with American money" planned to interfere with the election. "We are in charge in our land."

State-run television reported that authorities halted a truck near the border containing $200,000 US worth of American aid, including tents it suggested were meant for protesters like those who camped out in the Ukrainian capital during the Orange Revolution.