Belarus KGB chief says election day protesters could be charged with terrorism

MINSK, Belarus (AP) - The head of the Belarusian state security service warned Thursday that any protesters who take to the streets on election day Sunday could be charged with terrorism, and accused the opposition of plotting to seize power with foreign help.

"We will not allow the seizure of power under the guise of presidential elections," KGB chief Stepan Sukhorenko told a news conference. "For those who take the risk of going out into the street and try to destabilize the situation, their actions will be qualified as terrorism."

The statement was the government's strongest warning yet against street rallies on election day, when opposition leaders have called for peaceful protests if the voting is considered fraudulent. Terrorism carries a prison sentence of eight to 15 years, and up to life in prison or the death penalty under aggravated circumstances, Sukhorenko said.

He accused the opposition of plotting to forcefully overthrow the government of authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko, who is seeking a third term, and showed a video meant to suggest American involvement. He also accused a Georgian lawmaker and employees of Georgian embassies in neighboring Lithuania and Ukraine of plotting subversive actions during Sunday's vote.

"What is occurring is a preparation not for a peaceful protest, as the organizers of the so-called revolution explain it, but for a planned forceful action including the detonation of explosive devices, arson and the active provocation of law enforcement organs to use force," Sukhorenko said.

He said the alleged activities were part of a plot "to seize power on a wave of chaos and confusion."

The campaign chief of the main opposition candidate, Alexander Milinkevich, denied the allegations, calling them a scare tactic and accusing the authorities of "preparing wide-scale provocations to justify using force against peaceful people."

"We ask them not to confuse terrorists with peaceful citizens," Sergei Kalyakin told The Associated Press. "All responsibility for the use of force lies on Lukashenko and his circle."

Amid fears of confrontations between police and opposition supporters, who are expected to protest what they view as a likely official vote-rigging, Lukashenko's government has repeatedly accused the opposition of plotting violence, and claimed Western countries and their ex-Soviet allies are working with the opposition toward that aim.

Sukhorenko accused Givi Targamadze, chairman of the Georgian parliament's defense and security committee, of planning violence on election night, claiming that Targamadze told an interlocutor that he would organize small explosions.

In a video shown at the news conference, a man Sukhorenko claimed was involved in the plot said he had been at a camp in Georgia where terrorist training was provided by members of the former Soviet army and four Arabs, and that two American instructors once visited.

The man, whom Sukhorenko refused to identify, said he was ordered to detonate explosives at four central Minsk schools.

The man said he was taught about homemade bombs and hand-to-hand combat, but gave particular attention to what he said was a terror method involving killing a mouse or rat and using its remains to poison a water supply.

The U.S. Embassy this week denounced broadcasts on state media of programs criticizing the United States.

"These programs would appear nothing more than a transparent attempt by Belarusian state authorities to mislead and confuse Belarusian citizens just before presidential elections by creating a false threat from the United States toward Belarus," the statement said.

The broadcasts "have grown increasingly more absurd and offensive on an almost daily basis," it said.

On Thursday, the European Union warned it could broaden sanctions against Belarus if authorities continued a clampdown on opposition figures and election observers before the vote.

The EU condemned the recent detention of opposition figures and restrictions on international election observers, and said further punishment could include widening the EU's travel ban on Belarusian officials.