OPPOSITION supporters in Belarus were warned yesterday they could face the death penalty if they took part in a protest after the presidential election scheduled for Sunday.
Stepan Sukhorenko, head of the KGB secret service, accused the opposition of planning to use the rally to stage a coup against President Lukashenko, who has ruled the former Soviet republic since 1994.
"We will not allow the seizure of power under the guise of presidential elections," Mr Sukhorenko told a news conference.
"For those who take the risk of going out into the street and try to destabilise the situation, their actions will be qualified as terrorism" - a crime, he added, that could result in life in prison or the death penalty. His warning set the stage for a showdown on Sunday that diplomats say could escalate into a confrontation between the West and Russia in Moscow's debut year as President of the G8.
The US State Department has called Mr Lukashenko "Europe's last dictator."
The EU said that it would tighten sanctions against Minsk if the elections were not seen to be free and fair. It demanded that Belarus release dozens of opposition activists and journalists who have been detained.
Russia, however, is backing Mr Lukashenko in an attempt to stop another former Soviet state on its doorstep from moving out of its strategic sphere of influence and integrating with the EU and Nato.
Mr Lukashenko, who has resurrected Soviet-style economic and political controls since coming to power, is certain to win a third five-year term in the election.