By Andrei Makhovsky
MINSK (Reuters) - Belarus's state security warned on Thursday it would crush protests against President Alexander Lukashenko, heightening tension before his expected re-election in a Sunday poll the West seems sure to denounce as rigged.
The international isolation of the ex-Soviet state, that Lukashenko has run with an iron hand for 12 years, was underscored when the European Union said it was ready to extend visa bans on more Belarus officials if the poll was fraudulent.
The EU, like the United States, condemns what it says are gross violations of human rights in Belarus under Lukashenko who pledges to do all he can to avert any pro-Western revolutions, like those seen in Ukraine and Georgia, to topple him.
The head of the Belarus state security service, which retains its Soviet-era KGB acronym, said street protests against the president were a screen for a coup and would be treated as "terrorism".
The main opposition hopeful facing long odds in challenging Lukashenko, Alexander Milinkevich, has urged supporters to gather peacefully by polling stations to prevent vote-rigging.
"We are obliged to announce that under the cover of elections a violent attempt to seize power is being planned in the country," KGB head Stepan Sukhorenko told a news conference.
"The actions of those who take the risk of going into the streets to attempt to destabilize the situation will be viewed as terrorism."
But he added: "Not everyone going into the street will be declared a terrorist. But each person will be responsible for whatever actions he undertakes."
Sukhorenko's announcement was similar to previous statements that the security services had uncovered Western-backed plots to destabilize the ex-Soviet state of 10 million.
Earlier this month, he went on television to announce that activists had been plotting explosions ahead of Sunday's poll.
But the timing of the latest statement added high drama to the election, in which Lukashenko is heavily favored to defeat three runners, two from the liberal and nationalist opposition
Several key figures in the opposition camp have been rounded up in recent weeks and fined or sentenced to short prison terms.
"We are preparing no violent takeover," said Sergei Kalyakin, Milinkevich's campaign manager. "Our fear is that authorities will make provocative moves to justify using force against peaceful demonstrators."
Also running in opposition colors is academic Alexander Kozulin. A fourth candidate is an ally of the president.
NEW WESTERN SANCTIONS
Western countries have threatened to toughen sanctions against Belarus if, as expected, independent observers declare the election neither fair nor free.
The EU has already banned six Belarussian officials from traveling to EU territory and "one option would be indeed to lengthen that list", a spokeswoman for External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner said in Brussels.
The U.S. ambassador to the OSCE, which is sending 400 observers to Belarus, issued fresh criticism of the campaign.
"We must reiterate that free and fair elections do not just mean free and fair operations on election day, but -- more importantly -- the lead-up to the elections as well," Julie Finchley told an OSCE meeting in Vienna.
Lukashenko, in power since 1994, has said he will tolerate no upheaval like the mass protests that helped bring liberals to power in ex-Soviet Georgia and Ukraine.
Sukhorenko singled out Milinkevich and campaign aide Anatoly Lebedko, saying they would be held responsible for any violence.
"The candidate will complete his campaign and then, in accordance with legislation, we will establish whether or not he is guilty," he said. "If blood is spilled, those persons who called for such action will be held responsible."
Milinkevich has said during the campaign that he could well be arrested. Lebedko was detained by police on Wednesday.
Sukhorenko showed footage of an unidentified young man saying he had undergone military training at a camp in Georgia.