Belarus steps up assault on opposition

By Steven Lee Myers The New York Times

MINSK, Belarus Days before a presidential election that has already been widely condemned as unfair, the authorities here opened a legal assault on opponents of President Aleksandr Lukashenko, arresting dozens of campaign workers even as the country's security chief warned Thursday that people who gathered to protest the outcome could face charges for terrorism.

Intensifying an atmosphere of fear and tension, the head of Belarus's security service, still known as the KGB, said the opposition, supported by the United States and Georgia, planned a coup to seize power after the vote Sunday.

At a news conference here, he showed a video of what he said was an opposition activist confessing to having received training in Georgia from four Arabs and veterans of the Soviet armed forces.

"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," said Stepan Sukhorenko, the KGB leader, The Associated Press reported.

Lukashenko and other Belarussian officials have accused foreign powers of fomenting unrest and even revolution before. But coming only three days before the election, Sukhorenko's remarks raised the specter of a confrontation.

The leading opposition candidate, Aleksandr Milinkevich, has called on supporters to gather in Minsk on Sunday night to defend their rights to freely elect the next president, despite warnings that the assembly would be illegal.

Even before the vote, the arrests have begun in what Milinkevich's supporters said was an effort to deprive his campaign - and any protests to follow the vote - of its leaders. His campaign announced Thursday that 18 more of its workers had been arrested and jailed for terms of five to seven days - through Sunday's voting.

Several others were fined, while still others await sentencing. Two of Milinkevich's senior campaign directors, including the leader of the Belarussian National Front, Vincuk Vyachorka, were sentenced last week to short prison terms after holding campaign rallies that the authorities declared illegal.

At least five supporters of a second opposition candidate, Aleksandr Kazulin, were detained Thursday afternoon while distributing fliers in Minsk, two of his aides said. Kazulin himself was detained and beaten on March 2 while trying to attend a congress held by Lukashenko.

Although the figures are inexact, opposition leaders and human rights groups said that more than 60 people have been jailed, while hundreds more have been detained, often on charges of swearing, littering and "hooliganism."

The European Union and the United States have denounced the harassment, and the United Nations commissioner for human rights did so again on Thursday. So far, though, the criticism has had little effect on the government.

State television reported Thursday night that the Foreign Ministry had summoned ambassadors from the United States and Europe and warned them that their countries, along with the opposition leaders, would be held responsible for any consequences of any protests held Sunday.

A spokeswoman for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said that three of the group's 430 election observers - two from Poland and one from Germany - were refused entry this week, while five others did not receive visas.

Unofficial observers from private organizations in Denmark, Ukraine, Lithuania and Georgia have also been turned away at the border, worsening diplomatic tensions with the countries bordering Belarus.

Anatoly Lebedko, one of the country's leading opposition leaders, said the crackdown reflected a growing climate of fear and instability. Lebedko was detained outside his party headquarters for several hours on Wednesday - ostensibly for parking illegally - before being released early Thursday morning.

Sukharenko singled Lebedko out in his news conference on Thursday, saying he now was under investigation for preparing a terrorist act - a crime punishable by eight years to life in prison, or even death.

"The authorities for so long have instilled fear in this country that they did not realize that they caught the same virus," Lebedko said in an interview in his office. "They are afraid."